Advent shines through “black blizzards”

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Every Sunday morning when The New York Times arrives, I make a mad dash for Timothy Egan’s column that often dwells on some aspect of the environment of the American Midwest, my home. My first introduction to his work came by way of his book entitled “The Worst Hard Time,” an epic tale of the dust storms that terrorized America’s High Plains in the darkest years of the Depression.

The author follows the lives of several families through the rise and fall of the region, many living in sod homes in a desperate effort to carry on through the “black blizzards,” successive crop failures and the death of loved ones. Egan composes this tale of grit, pathos and hope by interviewing those who stayed and survived — those who, now in their 80s and 90s, would have carried their memories to the grave.

The reason the book so fascinated me is because I recognized in it the story of my own family who lived through the dark days of the North Dakota Dust Bowl, the so-called “dirty thirties.” Year after miserable year the crops failed, grasshoppers consumed even what little grass managed to grow, neighbors headed off for the lush valleys of California to harvest apples, peaches and walnuts. Nonetheless the Clementich family remained and survived mostly on hope and pure tenacity. Spring after desperate spring my father went into the fields with hope to “put in” the wheat, barley, corn and rye.

“This year will be different,” he would always say. And so it was with my father’s continuing sense of hope that we remained while others left.

This story is for me a kind of Advent tale, the blessed season of the liturgical year that has come round once more for those who believe in the God of hope.

Listen, for instance, to the poetry of Isaiah the prophet: “The desert and the parched land will exult and rejoice and bloom with abundant flowers.” He spoke of hope for his exiled people who had sustained years of suppression in a dry and foreign land.

The Apostle James, who himself might once have been a farmer, uses similar agricultural language in urging his flock to be patient for the coming of the Lord of history.

“See how the farmer awaits the precious yield of the soil. He looks patiently while the soil receives the winter and spring rains.”

Finally, we hear Jesus speak of that prophet of hope — John the Baptist — not a reed swaying aimlessly in the desert winds, but one who would promise hope for those willing to cultivate the soil of penitence and begin life over once again.

With the insight that comes from these Scriptural lessons, we continue to celebrate this lovely season of Advent and return full circle to discover a sense of hope in our messy and confused world.

True enough, our gardens may now lie bare of summer’s fruit and vegetables, but deep down in that black soil there lies the promise of spring when with hope we will go out once again to plant seeds that will bring joy to our lives.

So, my friends, when life often seems to resemble a dust bowl with not a sign of hope to be found, Christians gather in their churches to continue celebrating the year of grace all over again, a moment in time when we will see “the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.”

Scriptures for Dec. 11

Isaiah 35: 1-6, 10

James 5: 7-10

Matthew 11: 2-11

The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese as director of pastoral education. He now lives at Notre Dame in Indiana.


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