Saturday, December 3, 2016

Advent 2 Thinking about Chaff and Winnowing

Reflection Advent 2

How might you describe the ‘mood’ of the readings set for this Sunday?  The language of Isaiah is charged with hope – but the righteousness, faithfulness and judgement he speaks of are virtually subverted by the strangeness of his language.  We neither expect the wolf to live with the lamb; the leopard to lie down with the kid; or the calf and lion to reside together; neither do we imagine the bear to graze or the lion to eat straw.  In the natural order as we know it, these are carnivores.  Isaiah knows this of course and his language takes us into another world and another order, another way of being. He alerts us to this other world and the purpose of God beyond time.

John the Baptist refines this vision by warning of a cosmic judgement, a holocaust and at the same time speaks of a harvest that is the point of judgement where chaff is burned but the grain is preserved and stored. There is also hope here but alongside warning and judgement.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

These texts draw me to the painting we know as The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet (1857). You may recall it shows three peasant women collecting straws of grain missed in the harvest.   This is survival agriculture, back-breaking work by people at the bottom of the social and economic order. In the far distance, in a golden light, we catch a glimpse of huge haystacks, many workers at an abundant harvest and, apart from it all, a mounted supervisor.  When exhibited, The Gleaners attracted hostile criticism from polite society because they thought it glorified workers, criticised upper classes, and was the sort of revolutionary thinking that had led many to the guillotine about 60 years earlier.   I react to the painting in that way.  It asks a social question – where is the justice in a world where so many struggle to survive and others are so privileged and indifferent? Where is the revolution?  That is of course not just a social question but a moral one and as relevant now as then.

In Matthew we see how the people of Jerusalem and Judea responded to the Baptist’s Advent challenge to set their house in order: “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight”.  We hear of many going down to the Jordan to be baptised and to confess their sins.  At an hour of judgement and crisis – what does one do?   Those going to the scaffold make their peace – they prepare the way; they straighten things up; if this is the end, the critical moment when all one’s life is weighed and judged, what else can one do?

John notices the religious, social and political leaders of Judea have also heard the warning and have taken it seriously enough to head to the Jordan for baptism with everyone else.  He is not impressed.   These are leaders and role models; they hold power and influence.  What does he mean when he shouts “Bear fruit worthy of repentance?”  My guess is that he means ‘Change your life.”  Live in such a way that we all see who you are, the changed person that you are – or even the person you were created to be.

Now we know the story of Dismas, you may recall he was the repentant thief who died on the cross next to Jesus and asked Jesus to remember him.  But is repentance that simple?  Can the habits of a lifetime simply be shed?  Can a lifetime of selfishness just be walked away from; one’s formed and habitual way of thinking and acting just be disengaged?  May that not require some time, some focus and careful attention?

The Baptist speaks of the coming one as having the threshing floor cleared and his winnowing fork in hand: this is early agriculture – requiring a threshing floor (a flattened and cleared space) for the grain to be deposited and then trampled by cattle or beaten so that the husks are loosened from the kernels.  Then everything is tossed into the air with the winnowing fork and the air flow separates the chaff from the grain – blowing it away.

What is the chaff in our lives?  Are we aware of the dead stuff that it seems must take a lifetime to get past?  We should not judge too hastily.  The chaff was the husk that held the grain and brought it to ripeness; it had its purpose.  What we may call chaff and long to be rid of, may have had its part in forming us; but who are we becoming and who will the winnowing show us to be?

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