Abiding in Exile - Ashes 12/10/2020

Abiding in Exile - Ashes 12/10/2020

December 09, 2020

By Nan Smith

December 10, 2020

Scripture: Isaiah 61: 1-3a
“1The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
   to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

One April, a friend, knowing that I had been a seasoned prairie burner, asked me to help with the burning of her family’s tract of tallgrass prairie – a tract that had been in her family for generations. It was a tangle of old growth, with a heavy thatch build-up.  Clearly, this was a prairie that hadn’t been burned for a very long time. 

The burn day was less than ideal, what with Pentecostal winds blowing from the south, but we were locked into it. Armed with liquid fire, flappers to pound out renege flames, water sprayers on our backs, and a large water reservoir in a golf cart, we set the necessary back fire at the southern edge of the prairie. 

Our hope was to establish a fire line that would stop the fire from jumping into the neighbor’s corn stubble left from the last year’s harvest. We then moved along the east and west sides of the prairie, dripping liquid fire as we walked.   

We met at the north edge and there gathered together for a little conference of sorts, to discuss our backup plans if things went south (so to speak). It was a very short discussion, because when the fire jumps the fire line, choices are limited. You just do the best you can and hope that someone had the foresight to inform the local fire department about the burn. 

With a quick prayer, we lit the north edge. The fire, fanned by the brisk south wind, roared to life, a wall of flames, burning hot as it moved swiftly through the dead vegetation. In five minutes, it was over — almost. Even at full speed, the golf cart couldn’t stop it from crossing the fire line. There’s a reason why you should have a regular prairie burn schedule. We watched helplessly, as the fire jumped the wooden fence and then race off through the corn stubble.  

Sometimes, that’s the way it goes. 

All of our team took off to try and minimize the damage – all except me. I just stood on the prairie’s edge, gazing upon such destruction, humbled by the sheer energy of what I had just witnessed.  Everything was gone.  All that was left were ashes, thick and black, under my feet and floating gently in the air.  The barren land smoldered as the smoke curled gently upward.  

That day, I understood the utter terror our ancestors must have felt being caught in a prairie fire. I could imagine the heavy grief they felt walking through the destruction of what had been their life.

I do wonder if the Israelites felt similar feelings as they journeyed through their ransacked land.  Their homes destroyed, their livelihood gone, and the Temple ruined -- surely a deep grief filled their spirits.  Their traditions, that which brought them meaning, lost – covered in ashes. Thick ashes, covering their feet, blanketing their shoulders, clogging their very breath on their forced march to an unfamiliar country. Exiled.  Surely, the very word brought despair. 

But things often aren’t quite what they seem.

Here’s the thing about prairie burns -- by the end of that first week, if you stand on the prairie’s edge and squint your eyes just a little bit, you’ll see a green haze, a caress of new life upon the land.  The prairie resprouts, gaining nutrients and water from its deep roots. These plants have adapted to fire and so have learned how to survive.  
For the Israelites, their traditions and their identity ran deep.  Deep enough that many were able to grow and survive where they were now planted.  They too, were able to adapt to difficult circumstances and survive.

St. Hildegard of Bingen, a woman and religious leader of the 12th century, was known for having visions from God. In the book, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, the author, Matthew Fox, tells of a word, created by St. Hildegard -- viriditas meaning greening power.  He writes: “She believes that Christ brings ‘lush greenness’ to ‘shriveled and wilted’ people and institutions.”[i]

I have dwelled with these words, as we move through this Advent season.  I have held them close when the ashes of the pandemic have been heavy upon me; when the air fills with grief and bitterness; when my weary shoulders are rounded with worry.  
In the shadows of Advent waiting, if I but squint my eyes a little bit, there is a greening happening around the manager.  New life happens.  Resurrection comes.  As it did for the Israelites.  As it will for us.


[i] Matthew Fox, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, Bear & Company, Rochester, Vermont, 1985.