A Word In Time
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom, like the crocus…” (Isaiah 35)
I never hear these words from Isaiah without thinking of Coon Hill, and my Dad.
When I was a little girl, my Dad often took us out hiking. One of our favorite places to go was the woods right behind our house, where we walked up an old dirt road to the top of the hill. From up top we could see across the Minnesota fields and river bluffs down the whole Mississippi Valley.
One day, in late winter, when the sun was getting a little higher on the horizon and the snowdrifts were getting a little lower, my Dad and I bundled up in boots and parkas and mittens and set off, just the two of us, on the first hike of spring. He said there was a surprise for me up at the top of Coon Hill.
We climbed to the top of the hill and my Dad did have a special surprise for me: a snow picnic. We built a little fire of twigs and branches, we roasted a few marshmallows and then layered up graham crackers and Hershey bars to make s’mores. Then my Dad told me to climb up over the big rocks, away from our picnic spot, to see what I could see. Just as I got to the other side of the rocks, I caught sight of a splash of purple: wild crocuses! Pushing up through the snow, the strong, sturdy little crocuses blazed bright, and winter ended.
I counted on those crocuses as a symbol of spring. I imagine Isaiah did too, or at least he knew the people of Israel needed a symbol of spring. He knew their deep longing, their need for a sign that the God who sends crocuses could bring them refreshment.
Isaiah’s scroll dates from the time (some 700 years before Christ) when the kingdom of Israel had split in two, the northern portion already invaded by the Assyrians, the people already carried off into slavery in Babylon. The people in the south, in Judah, needed a sign that God had not abandoned them completely.
Isaiah’s poetry gives them the images of hope. The crocus shall bloom again, the desert blossom, the desolation shall become glad singing. And then he changes the tense of his verbs. He moves from the the desert shall rejoice, the crocus shall bloom, to present tense imperatives: Strengthen. Make firm. He reminds them of the vision of God’s glory, and then he says “do it.” Strengthen the weak hands, make firm the feeble knees, speak bold words of comfort and courage that say God is here in our midst right now. Do not fear.
The prophet roots them in the land, giving them a sense of place and promise. Isaiah tells them to look to the world around them for the signs of the presence of God.
We find the crocuses, the signs of hope, it would seem, where we least expect: under icy snow, when the world is cold, in the bleak desert, when we are tapped out, worn out, discouraged. When we are trapped like John, in Herod’s prison, where there is no reason, no good reason for anything like hope, when we are devoid of delight and way beyond surprise.
So where in our world this Advent do you find hope? Where might you find the story of the crocus, or the kind of possibility that Wendell Berry names, in today's poem below. I am looking at two unlikely places, and seeing glimmers of hope.
I’m looking at the Fast4Families right now on the National Mall in Washington, DC, where people of conscience are naming immigration reform as a moral issue. It’s reason for hope—and a fine Advent project for churches across the country. And I see a bit of the crocus bloom when I look toward the Vatican, and see a Pope who speaks and acts in the spirit of the beatitudes, leaving papal opulence behind to minister to the homeless of Rome, and reviving the great tradition of Catholic social justice teaching. It’s reason for hope. Where’s your crocus?
Echoes from the Edge
This October, Southside celebrated Migrant Sunday, when we remember our brothers and sisters who died crossing the Arizona desert in the past year. At the end of the service we process out to our migrant shrine carrying rocks with the names of the dead written upon them. This year I was thinking back to 2010 when the task of writing the names and the date when their body was found fell to me. It was a long but sacred process to write the 253 names or the word desconocido, meaning “unknown” on those rocks; it was sacred because those names are sacred to many of us living in the borderlands. They are the names that are called out at vigils, followed by the chorus, “presente.” There are the names that are written on white crosses and carried on the shoulders of those who march for the end to inhumane border policies and deaths in the desert. They are the names that we carry in our hearts.
As I wrote the names and the dates on the rocks I kept wondering: what was I doing when this person fell to the ground for the last time? Where was I when this body was found? And was I remembering the migrant? It is not that I never remember the migrant. On sweltering Tucson summer days, I remember the migrant and imagine how the desert heat must make a jug of water left by a humanitarian group the most blessed thing on earth. On cold winter nights when I am safe and warm in my bed next to my husband, I remember the migrant and think how awful it must be to walk and walk with no rest in sight in the hopes of being reunited with a loved one. But was I remembering the migrant on July 11 when 5 bodies were found? Was I remembering the migrant on June 19th when Wilmer Oswaldo Castillo Aquirre, 17 years old from El Salvador died? Was I remembering the migrant on January 15th when 25 year old Edith Carballo-Paredes was found? Probably not, and that confession pierced my heart.
After placing the rocks on the communion table I decided read the names out loud. I just thought their names need to be spoken even if there was no one else listening. And as I began I was struck again by how many times I said desconocido. The repetition of the word over and over again became a litany: desconocido, desconocido, desconocida, desconocido. 156 times I said unknown and I thought of the family members of these unidentified brothers and sisters and how they must pray and wait anxiously for the news of safe arrival - news that will never come. And then as I stood alone in the sanctuary, surrounded by these names, reciting desconocido as if it were a holy mantra I remembered that not one of these unknown sisters or brothers is unknown to their Creator, not one of them is forgotten.
Alison is the pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ.
Finally, the Poet
After the bitter nights
and the gray, cold days
comes a bright afternoon.
I go into the creek valley
and there are the horses, the black
and the white, lying in the warm
shine on a bed of dry hay.
They lie side by side,
identically posed as a painter
might imagine them:
heads up, ears and eyes
alert. They are beautiful in the light
and in the warmth happy. Such
harmonies are rare. This is
not the way the world
is. It is a possibility
nonetheless deeply seeded
within the world. It is
the way the world is sometimes.