Earthen thoughts at Lent

This Lent season our thoughtful new pastor challenged us to think of some of Jesus’ “I am” statements in the Gospel of John and write responses to be read aloud at weekly evening services. Always one to love an assignment, I dug in. These concrete sayings of Jesus began to feel like they were meant for people like me, who work with our hands in the dirt, who don’t sit around ivied halls thinking about theology. They give us something to sink our teeth into as we contemplate the passion of Christ.

So if you, like me, think with your body (and, if necessary, your brain also), have a chew on some of these, and a Happy Easter to you.

***

“I am the Light of the World.”

It’s hard to remember now in the dark quiet of this Lenten service, but this week, under sunny skies and all this new snow, you might have found yourself like me, squinting against brilliant sunlight reflecting off white snow. It’s reminded me of a condition I’ve read about called snow-blindness. Also called photokeratitis, it’s essentially sunburn of the eyeball, caused by UV rays reflecting off snow and ice onto the unprotected eye, usually at high altitudes where the atmosphere is thinner and the light less diffuse. Apparently you go home after a day on the ice and in a few hours your eyes begin to swell, tear, and blur; they’ll feel gritty beneath the lids, and you may lose your vision temporarily. (I don’t recommend Googling images of this condition.)

The Inuit people of Alaska, for whom this injury is a real and present danger, have a way of preventing it. They craft slatted blindfolds, traditionally carved from bone or caribou antler, sometimes elegantly carved, but, in a pinch, fashioned from birch bark. Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey style, they completely cover the eyes except for one horizontal slot on each side, allowing just enough light to enter the eye to find one’s way hunting on ice and snow, but not enough for the light to burn the eyeballs.

When Moses came down from the mountain, where he received the law from God, the people of Israel were afraid to look at him, his face glowing with the after-glory of God. He made a veil for himself, so he could go among the people without them fearing his God-flushed face. Did his eyes swell? Did they turn bloodshot and feel, blinking, as if he had sand in his eyelids?

 

Why would Jesus liken himself to something so ruthless, so unrelenting, so damaging as light? Why not compare himself to raindrops on roses, or whiskers on kittens? Didn’t he remember that we’re only humans, with fragile, burning skins and eyes that blur and grit when God passes by; when, even from the cleft of a rock, covered by God’s hand, we catch a bare glimpse of his back?

How are we to deal with this relentless, unsparing glory of God? Should we fashion blindfolds, and go about our lives feeling about with our hands, wearing long sleeves to protect our friable skin? Or do we climb a snowy hill, strip down and lie naked in the scouring light, exposing all our dark, protected places, eyes wide open?

***

“I am the Bread of Life.”

Are you looking to add more carbs to your diet?

You should try my recipe. It’s a simple one, using perhaps the oldest method of bread baking known to humans, developed before there were baking pans, before you could buy bagged Gold Medal flour in the grocery store; shoot, this is even before people knew gold was a metal.

So this recipe will get you those missing carbs, help you to get in touch with your ancestors, and it’ll get you outdoors and connected to nature!

First, go outside and collect some wild grains. Weeds often make great grains, so keep your eye out for tall weeds forgotten on the edges of fields. Gather an armful, dry them, and grind them into flour. Mix your flour with enough water to make a dough, and add some salt if you have it. Pat it into thin cakes.

Stir up last night’s bonfire until you find the coals at the bottom. You’ll recognize the hottest coals because they’re covered with white, not grey ash. Lay one of your cakes on the hottest ashes and cover them with more hot coals and ash.

Wait.

Disinter your bread from where it’s hidden in a pile of ashes. You’ll know it’s done when it’s black and blistered in places. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look perfect. In fact, this sort of bread is often ugly, misshapen, even difficult to recognize as bread.

Use a brush made of fresh grape leaves to brush away the ash and cinders. Be careful not to burn yourself as you pry burning cinders encrusted in the surface. However, remember that a little ash is good for the digestion, so if you consume a little grit with the crust, don’t worry.

Break open the loaf and eat it with the heat of the fire still inside. It will taste wild. Those rangey, misunderstood weeds from which it was made will nourish your body with nutrients it didn’t even know it was lacking.

Remember, this is an ancient bread. It has none of the leavening agents, sweeteners, or fats that make our modern bread so soft, spongy, and delicious. In fact, because it’s so tough to chew, and with the occasional cinder, more than one person has broken a tooth on this bread.

Hopefully you have strong teeth.

Or, now that I think about it, maybe it’s better if you just go ahead and break a few teeth against it.

***

“I am the Good Shepherd.”

So I’ve been thinking about this passage all week, and it reminded me that the Easter season is also lambing season. But I have to admit that while I’ve been thinking about Jesus being the good shepherd, I’ve also been getting our maple syrupping equipment together to tap our trees, and now maple syruping season is all confused in my head with lambing season. Maybe because both imply a reliance on french press coffee, fleece vests, and mud boots. Both are yearly rituals that foretell the coming of spring, while summer still feels quite far away. Both involve a bit of anxiety, a vulnerable eye to the weather, and end with exhilaration as one counts one’s jars, or lambs.

As I make my rounds among the trees emptying the taps, I feel a little bit like a shepherd, only with very widely spaced and stationary sheep. I’m not ashamed to admit that I can be heard whispering encouragement to my barky charges–as I empty each bucket, we commune, mitten to bark, and I give them each a fond pat on the flank before going on to the next tree. My boots wear muddy paths between them.

This is about as close to shepherding as I will ever get. With apologies to the farmers and husbandman here, I don’t identify much with sheep. Somehow looking into those ovine faces, their weird horizontal pupils put me off my feed a little. And maybe I find it just the teeniest bit offensive that Jesus would compare us, God’s highest creation, to sheep, with their…encrusted hindquarters and their dumb instinct to follow whatever moves. I would much rather be compared to a sugar maple tree, all graceful limbs and a preference for dancing in the summer breeze.

But Jesus was surrounded with sheep his entire life. Some of his first visitors were probably sheep, jostling him to get at the hay in the manger beneath his little swaddled self. John the Baptist greets him at the beginning of his ministry by calling him the Lamb of God. Now here he is, calling himself the Good Shepherd, the true shepherd, this claim that puts him on the level of God, and it’ll get him killed. Maybe he should have called himself the Good Maple Syrupper… it might have saved his life because no one would have known what he was talking about.

These trees I tap, they live in the forest all their lives. They reach up their twiggy arms to the sun, send their roots down deep and suck water and minerals from the juice of rocks. They stand and sway all year around, and wear their fall colors quietly. They are exactly as they were created to be.

And the sheep, they live in their fleeces all their lives, bearing those burry, muddy skins with no thought either of embarrassment or pride. They do not spray with lavender water or attempt to not follow whatever rump happens to be before their noses. They eat their hay with relish and tolerate the lambs that skip in the fields. They are…sheep, no more no less.

So why am I surprised every year to be marked with ash and reminded that I am made of dust, and to dust I will return? Why do I persist in denying my own encrusted hindquarters? That dust, that humus, that makes me human, it feeds the maple trees. The prophet reminds us that “all flesh is grass”: the same grass that is eaten by sheep.

Jesus, as he approaches his own death, in his gentle way reminds us who we are. It says “He was moved with compassion for the crowd, because they were harassed and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.” Like he did for that crowd, he also gathers us to himself, he heals us, he feeds us. He knows us, who we are at our core: animate clods of earth.

And he is not dissuaded. He chooses to go alongside us, participating with us in the very actions of our lives, not just the swaying midsummer dances, but the eating of our hay, and the cleaning up afterwards. He simply wants to be with us. Even when we go to the laundromat to cleanse our clothes from the smell of our bodies, and he knows we will stink them up again next week. He goes with us, and not to spray lavender water over our humusy bodies. He breathes in deeply the scent of the ones he loves. And we, with our laundry basket at our hip, are sanctified by the presence of our shepherd, who walks alongside us, wearing muddy paths beside our own.

***

“I am the true vine.”

Grapevines have sole possession of the genus Vitis, which comes from the same root word as vitality, or vital organs: vitalis, “of or belonging to life.” Vitis, the vine of life.

Perhaps you’ve noticed this before: the juice of the purple grape looks a lot like blood, that vital fluid. When it’s moving within your body, you know you’re alive; lose too much of it and you may die.

In the past–Jesus’ day, for example–when the cleanliness or safety of water was in doubt, the best replacement for vital hydration was wine.

So a grapevine, especially for Jesus’ hearers, was the picture of life; of survival, yes, but fertility as well. Even today the sheer weight of a healthy grapevine is known to overwhelm trellises, but given enough structure its mass can be trained to gracefully cover an arbor, shading a patio, turning the light below a cool, filtered green, its fruit weighing heavy on the vine, purple chandeliers to grace the picnic table.

Jesus paints a picture of a branch belonging to a vine, the passive recipient of moisture and nutrients, the bearing of fruit an inevitable off-shoot of its connection to the vine. Thus we, as branches, must simply cling to himself, and he will bear fruit through us. We have simply to abide. To sink our fingers deep and live in him.

Jesus uses a contrasting agricultural picture a couple chapters previous to this, that of seeds. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the very picture of death: bare soil; dry, brittle seed interred beneath. Give it a few days and you will see the new shoots of green life, which produce fruit, someday more seeds.

So which is it? To produce fruit, are we to be about the business of dying, or of abiding?

 

This liturgical year I’ve found myself thinking about the effect of our seasons on the way we interpret the great feasts. In advent, when days are at their darkest, a Light shines forth. At Easter, spring is coming and we buy baby chicks at the hardware store to celebrate new life. But this is the Northern Hemisphere. How must the church on the other side of the world, the Southern Hemisphere, interpret the feasts? At Christmastime, summer is at its height; you luxuriate in the embarrassment of lushness that is the summer solstice and out of all that bounty, Christ is born. At Easter, the lambs are not being born. Instead, farmers are making plans to bring their lambs to market. Easter is a time of growing darkness, and impending death.

So which is it? Are we in the business of new life, or the slaughterhouse? This is the question of Holy Week itself: which is the greater miracle, that Christ, that deathless God-made-man, chose a suffering death for our sake? Or that he quitted it, by rising again from the tomb to a life eternal? Death or life?

I want it to be both. To sink my fingers deep in the bosom of Jesus and brim over with rank, tendrily growth. To burn those over-grown branches and send up sweet smoke. To break beneath the weight of the fruit that I bear, and crush the berries till the ground runs red. Bury me beneath the bare ground, plant an apple tree above me, and make a pie.

***

I’d like to thank Debbie Blue, Russell Rathbun, and the folks at House of Mercy in St. Paul, that lovely incubator for ideas, theology, and art–rich soil from which some of these essays have grown.

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