Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Who Owns Jesus, Again: Reflections on Nature as Sacramental Gift

I love to be outside sweeping this time of year.  The air begins to have that tonic feel it acquires in fall, though we've had a return to summer the past several days, with the storms in the Gulf region and the Atlantic pumping hot tropical air up to the mid-Southern plains.

The tonic air reminds me of a crisp, cool white wine like the Grüner Veltliner you find on tables in summer and fall all around Vienna, and as far east as the old Moravian areas of the Austro-Hungarian empire, now the Czech Republic.  The sweet Czech couple who live across the street from the house in which Steve's great-grandmother grew up in a town that used to be called Bautsch, but is now Budišov nad Budišovkou, served it to us when we visited Steve's family's house, under an arbor of the grapes from which they'd made the wine.  Crisp, refreshing, understated--a perfect remedy for any touch of heat in the air.

There's also, around our house these days, the combined smells of sweet olive and elaeagnus in bloom.  The deep, elegant apricot tones of the sweet olive form a heavenly combination with the sweeter, subtler ones of the elaeagnus.  I'm not sure that, despite its name, the sweet olive belongs at all in the olive family, but if so, it makes sense that its aroma would marry well with that of elaeagnus, which is an olive.

Today, as I swept the leaves falling quickly from the large maple tree in our front yard (increasingly, with global warming, we have no real fall; the leaves simply wither and drop from exhaustion after long hot, dry summers), a mockingbird sang in the yaupon holly on the other side of the yard.  I have fancied that the same bird returns to the holly each summer, since, in the decade we've lived in this house, we've always had a mockingbird there each summer, singing beautifully on many of the occasions when we do yard work around the small tree.

Or perhaps this is a descendant of a bird that used to inhabit the tree in our first years here.  Or maybe they're not related at all.  Whatever the case, it's hard to shake the sense that the bird is singing with me in some way, as I sweep.  As if it enjoys the stirring about and the prospect of insects and worms uncovered by the gathering and storing of leaves . . . . 

And as I pulled the piles of leaves into a berm to provide winter protection to the roots of the small gingko, and gave the rest as mulch to the vitex and the flowering quince, it struck me: this is sacramental.  It's sacramental to work outside in this fresh air, hearing the mockingbird sing, smelling the sweet olive and elaeagnus, participating in the cycle of death and resurrection of nature, in which fallen leaves become fresh spring blooms next year.

And the clerical club that wants to yank "their" church sacraments away from me and others they consider beneath and beholden to them: they can't take these sacraments of the natural world away.  Because those sacraments don't belong to that club which tells us when and where we may have a piece of the Jesus it owns.

Not any more, really, than the Jesus bishops and priests claim to be doling out sacramentally as their precious gift to the rest of us belongs to them, either . . . .

The image is a depiction of Pentecost from a Franco-Flemish book of hours, 1440-1455, now in the Dartmouth University Rauner Special Collections library. The Pentecost event, which Catholic theology traditionally speaks of as the birth of the church, is recounted in Acts 1 and 2.  Acts 1:13-14 states that, as they gathered in an upper room following Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection, the Spirit came upon his mother Mary, a number of the apostles, the women among his followers, and the brothers of Jesus.  In many traditional representations of the event, Mary is placed in the center of the depiction--not Peter or one of the apostles.

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