Several years ago, before I’d ever read Ellen Davis’ work on the Old Testament as texts intensely concerned with the care of the land, I heard an interview she gave on the radio. She described growing up in California and the awareness of what a precious and easily wounded that land was, and how it was passing away. She put words around a deep sense I had of the landscape that is still, strangely, my truest place. Here is what I said at Morning Prayer one Friday in Advent.
Growing up in my family, you held two maps at once.
The first, you could find in any gas station:
the grid of streets and highways that divided the eastern San Gabriel valley.
The second was the map on which the story was set:
the Lindersmith orchard, the ranches,
the vineyard wineries where the fruit-pickers would
take their jugs at lunch break. And everywhere the orange groves—
a rowed sea of orange trees between houses and towns
and windbreaks of eucalyptus, sun-bleached and billowing like ships.
By the time I was a kid, this was nearly all gone;
these were ghost limbs, nerved and alive
in the way my mother, and her mother, and her mother spoke.
And when I go home now, the landscape wastes thinner and drier.
Above the valley, the rock is bright
where the forest and chaparral are shrinking away from the bones of the mountains,
where it hardly snows at all any more.
Isaiah looks at this woman—
this nameless but particular woman, the woman with the rounding belly.
He is addressing the whole faithless court of King Ahaz
but he is speaking as much to her, the sign-bearer,
telling her: The baby in you will be a boy.
Remember to call him Immanuel.
By the time he can decide what to eat,
he will eat honey,
and the powers who menace Judah will have spent themselves.
But first they will come, from Egypt and Assyria.
They will kill and carry off people and animals,
humiliating and enslaving;
they will shave you to the skin.
And there will be no one to tend these vineyards.
They will be rich with thorns. The farmland will be trampled with hooves.
That will be the life of your child.
It will be so different from your life.
A life remembering vineyards he never saw.
But he will grow, and there will be a people,
blessed through the land with
The prophet will erupt in song,
but not here.
The sign of the child makes sense only in the fullness of the oracle.
It isn’t news to Ahaz that God is with them;
there, after all, stands the hill of Zion.
But the people are promised a sign of what that means:
God is with us, and so the land labors with judgement.
We have a charge: to go—to go now—
to be brave in faith for the people who are given to us.
To hold out the kind of faith that names loss.
One that doesn’t have as its spine
the conviction that things cannot really be broken,
that we ourselves will see the land restored,
Because that may not be how it is. It takes a long time for chaparral to grow,
for ice to stitch back together into its sheets.
And if we cannot grieve that, we will simply deny it in our hearts,
and will not choose the way we are given
by the blessing and shattering Lord who has made a home with us.
Who is fierce with love.