Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Work Impeded


It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Wendell Berry
(Collected Poems)

On January 13, we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It's a moment of glory, isn't it? Jesus emerges triumphant from the water. The dove descends. The Fathers of the Church made much of that dove. The last time we saw it was in the story of Noah. Or rather, the last time we lost sight of it was in the story of Noah. After the rains, Noah saw only floods where the earth had been, but --ever a hopeful man even in the face of hopelessness--he sent out a dove in search of dry land. The first dove returned: it had found nowhere to land. Then he sent out a second dove. The second dove returned bearing an olive twig. (One strand of much later rabbinic tradition thought the Tree of Life had been an olive tree. That thought adds a real kicker to the story.) That dove no doubt appeared on more than one Christmas card in your mailbox this year, bearing the hope of peace. That dove is the one that figures in some of the patristic homilies about Jesus' baptism also. However, there was a third dove. That dove flew out and never returned. Noah knew then that creation the earth had emerged new-born from the flood. It was time now to start over. I like to think that it is the third dove we see descending on Jesus, the new creation emerging from the waters of chaos, like Israel emerging from the twin waters of the Red Sea and this very Jordan that bracketed the desert years when they were forged into a new creation, a new people. The dove is, of course, the image of the Spirit/Breath that hovered over the primal sea, bearing the word that would summon forth all created things. In the story of Jesus' baptism, another word is spoken: God claiming the Son. It is, indeed, a glorious story.

But not for long. In less than a month, we will celebrate Ash Wednesday. On the First Sunday of Lent, we will read the story that actually follows immediately upon the baptism in the gospel story: Jesus is driven into the desert to be tempted by Satan. The work is no sooner announced than it is impeded. The road is barred by the tempter, whispering that old familiar love song--"Come to me, come to me, I will lay at your feet power, wealth, glory...You shall be like a god." The script has never varied; only the wording has changed.

Life is like that. The warmth of Christmas is quickly succeeded by the frosts of desert nights. The angels leave, the shepherds go back to their sheep, the magi take off for parts unknown, the baby and family are sent into exile-- in Egypt, as a matter of fact, whence the young man "returns" at baptism, crossing the Jordan to claim the land of promise. On the day of baptism, the voice of God replaces the song of the angels, announcing that the promised messenger has come; the crowds replace the shepherds, wondering at what they have seen and heard; the magi don't show up this time, but the scribes and the Pharisees, the wise hearts of Israel, do. But the wonder is once again short-lived. The voice of God is silent as Jesus himself takes up the task of proclaiming the good news. The crowds grow fickle, one minute wanting to crown him a king, the next minute wanting to throw him over a cliff. The wise are uncertain that they have indeed found the one they sought. Many of them decide they were mistaken. There are no soldiers with swords going after babies this time, but there will be plenty of soldiers of one kind or another with blood on their minds as the story unfolds. And always there is the tempter, doing evil's utmost to undo the creative work of God, not in Jesus only but also in all disciples.

Wendell Berry's poem suggests that in the impediments lies the way that Jesus must follow, and we after him. Evil often defeats its own purposes. When the new life-giving impulses that arise from the moments of chaos on our lives are right, evil is waiting around the corner to block the way. The roadblock is the confirmation that we are on the right road. If we weren't, evil wouldn't care. (This is, of course, an overstatement: all serious decisions require discernment rooted in facts, because sometimes the road is blocked because it's the wrong one.) Moreover, in finding our way over, around, and through the impediments, we grow strong in our convictions and our creativity and our courage to carry them out. I am reminded of the familiar warning that if you very kindly assist the butterfly in its struggle to emerge from the cocoon by breaking the cocoon open for it, the butterfly may emerge, but it will be unable to fly. I like to imagine that only the butterfly with torn wings can fly into the sun.

Only the gospel-bearer impeded is strong, courageous and creative enough to sing.

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga

Note: Wendell Berry's poem is no doubt under copyright, but it appears in several places on the web, so I have taken the liberty to reprint it on this website too. If there are objections, I will remove it.

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