Third Sunday of Advent
Have you ever smelled a railroad tie burning? Picture hot asphalt, Marlboro Reds, and a touch of polecat rolled up together and you’ll just about have it. It’s one thing to get a whiff of, passing by with your windows down in July. It’s another thing altogether to have to breathe it day in and day out on your back porch under a thickened December sky.
Companies that want to produce energy on the cheap and make a good profit by doing it realize that it’s in their best interest to build their plants way out where “those rednecks” don’t have the infrastructure or capital to resist them. At the far edge of a big open field about a mile from where my husband pastors in Colbert, Georgia, an outsized box glows and pumps smoke 300 feet in the sky. Last year this biomass power plant quietly switched over from burning wood chips to creosote soaked railroad ties. At a similar plant right up the road, the creosote was only a gateway drug before burning used motor oil. And it’s not just the air here that’s a commodity. The chicken factories have started leasing land from ex-farmers to bury their beaks and byproducts six inches out of sight but not near deep enough to hide the stench they give off.
Our texts this week are shot through with the healing of the earth. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (Is 35:1), “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert” (Is 35:6-7), “the LORD is the one who gives food to the hungry” (Ps 146:7), and whence will “the hungry be filled with good things” (Luke 1:53) if not from a rich and fertile soil? Indeed, “we await the coming of the Lord [as] the farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains” (James 5:7-10).
But if you walk into a high school auditorium full of folks sick off of creosote saying, “Hey y’all, it’s fine, the Bible promises the creation will be renewed,” you won’t need a climate scientist to tell you that that plus a whole dollar bill will get you a cold Coca-Cola.
Talking Christianly about ‘the environment’ is just plain hard. Debra Dean Murphy is someone exquisitely sensitive to the many ways this kind of theology can run off the rails. She sees well as few do that anxious calls to ‘do something!’ are every bit as bad as bright reassurance; neither gets quite the gravity of our situation. The diagnosis is fatal and final, so her haunting proposal is this: Christians should pursue activism, virtue, and beauty, yes, but as “a sort of palliative care” to offer the world “companions in our grief for all the time that we have left” (Christian Century, Reading the Creation Story in a Dying World, Oct 2019).
It wouldn’t take much convincing to get folks in Madison county to agree that the world’s going to hell in a handbasket. Their news and their noses tell them that. But what does Mary say? Is hospice all to hope for, or does yet the LORD keep faith forever (Psalm 146:5-6)? How do we read the Magnificat in this, our dying world?
The canticle of Mary is a song that echoes and rivals the best of Hebrew verse. Any straightforward exegesis would risk stripping poetry to prose. John Ashberry once gave an interview in which he said the only proper response to a poem is another poem. I am not a poet nor the daughter of a poet, and can offer no such thing. What I would like to give you is a painting, an image to hold in your mind as you listen to Mary’s song and to the texts laid beside it for us this week.
The painting that accompanies this reflection is Birth at Mount Gilboa, by Athens, GA artist Terry Rowlett. Gilboa was, you may recall, the mountain where Saul was slain in battle. When David hears tell of the tragic deaths of the Lord’s anointed and of his beloved Jonathan, he calls down curses on the ground where their blood dried, “Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew nor rain upon you, neither fields of choice fruits; for there the shield of the might was vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil” (I Samuel 1:21). The suffering of human and non-humankind are always and ever entwined. Our curse and our freedom are part and parcel of the world.
To this day, the mountains of Gilboa remain desolate, populated the by trees transplanted there by the Jewish National Fund. “But if you visit the Gilboa in winter or spring, the mountain’s masses of wildflowers seem to defy the curse” (The Times of Israel, Jan 2015). “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus” says the prophet Isaiah (35:1-2).
The power of the Most High that overshadowed this woman (Luke 1:35) is the very same Spirit that moved over the darkness upon the face of the deep at the beginning of all things (Genesis 1:2). In Mary all of creation comes to bear, and everything that has been made is now remade. But differently. While the very first creation was by a Word, she with her sister Eve exclaims “With the LORD’s help I have made a man!” (Genesis 4:1), and we are all now implicated and involved. How does God give food to the hungry (Psalm 146:7)? They are not fed by freely growing wildflowers, but here instead by row upon row of food crop, and the water and tools for tending them.
Is this all not just a pipedream? Whatever life remains in it, whatever community gardens for the homeless we might have, our planet has a terminal prognosis, and the woman in the painting is barely pregnant, if at all.
With no stick to pee on and no sonogram in sight, she sings. Mary’s soul thrills proleptically, while the truth of her words is still hidden in the dark and unseen place. Where Hannah waited until weaning (I Samuel 2), it is months before even the hope of quickening and yet this woman sings the untruth of God’s victory into being.
It is the task of the church during advent to wait for the LORD in the black of night like watchmen on the heights, like virgins straining for a trace of their once and future king (Psalm 130, Matthew 25). And here is one glint. The militarized wasteland that was the iron curtain “where barbed wire, watchtowers and minefields once separated Europe” has become a 7,700 mile Green Belt of “unintentional, almost pristine ecological habitat” with military remnants left intact to remind visitors whence this beauty. Similarly the landmines of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea have made it a refuge for biodiversity, an ecological area with a jungle untouched for 66 years, the preservation of which might become the first project both Koreas could agree upon (Euractive, October 2019).
But the hard question remains how we are to read the signs of life we see in these transformed death zones when we find them. Are they flashes of color like the crocus, which springs up in the desert but will of course wither and fade? Does the looming reality of climate collapse mean these redemptive traces amount finally to palliative gifts God gives a dying planet? Or. Or might we dare to hope that they are meaningful foretastes of some inexplicable, utterly impossible thing to come. Might there be any meaningful way that we and all creation might share in the life that is in Mary’s womb, and by which all death shall die?
I do not know how to hold out this hope, and I do not know what shape it should take. But I have some sense of what is at stake. Just past the biomass plant on Highway 72 is Jubilee Partners in Comer, GA, an intentional Christian service community offering hospitality to newly arrived refugees and immigrants. Rachel Bjork lives at Jubilee and tells how earlier this week her friend and fellow community member “Linda shared in detail, for about an hour, of her border crossing. It was harrowing. She called it the journey between life and death. She described the chill, the dangers – natural and human.” Then Rachel says,
“A few hours after hearing this, I pulled out the lectionary readings for the first time and the Isaiah passage jumped out at me and had a completely new context. Pools of water (not gallons in the backpack weighing you down), a highway (not a hidden way) that shall be a called a Holy (not illegal) Way….for God’s people (not aliens)…..they shall obtain joy and gladness (a home in safety) and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (not end in death or in detention).”
Archibald MacLeish said that a poem should not mean but be. I have to wonder if the Magnificat might not be. If there is not some way to open our eyes with Jacob to the harsh light of day, to the reality of hard stone and dead earth and say, this dream was more than a dream, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I knew it not” (Genesis 28).
What Linda and all the people of Colbert and Comer, Georgia need are not quick platitudes or strident calls to action. What they need are the power magnates to be cast down from their thrones and the hungry to be filled with good things grown in a soil not poisoned by byproducts. To and for and with them, we either have the courage to sing Mary’s words into the darkness or we do not. There is either some non-negligible apocalyptic hope for us and for all of creation, or there is not. Thanks be to God, our LORD relies not on the strength of Israel’s hoping, but is in fact the Hope of Israel.