I must confess when I was younger I wondered a lot about the words John the Baptist speaks in the Gospel reading for today. “His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” It sounded punitive or even violent. Where is the “good news” in that?
But then I learned more about farming. Wheat has different parts to it of different weights or heaviness. The edible grain is heavier while the outer chaff is lighter, so by winnowing , a farmer can basically allow wind to do the work, after threshing the grain where the chaff sometimes can simply blow away on its own. The chaff is the part that’s not needed. If it doesn’t just blow away one can dispose of it through burning.
As is often the case, Jesus doesn’t fully explain his metaphor. But for me it resonates with Advent and its business. For me as a professor, Advent also always coincides with one of the busiest academic seasons of the year, when I have a huge amount of grading and dissertation defenses to do, letters of recommendation to write for my grad students, and then the Christmas related tasks around my house, gifts for family to buy, cards to write. The trouble is that none of it is chaff, a lot of it is good grain. I imagine it is the same for others at Advent and Christmas time—-lots to do that is seasonal on top of the usual of work, housecleaning, leaf or snow cleanup, and the like.
I have no solution to the problem, really, except to try to focus on my tasks at the moment, carve out some time in the early morning for prayer, and make sure there’s time to be celebratory, too, The “good grain” of life really is what the reading from Phillipians recommends:
“Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.”
The other night my husband and I had been feeling slightly under the weather for a couple of days but recuperated and got our negative COVID results. We were able to go out to downtown Boston and a winter market, filled with Christmas lights. Just taking in the sights of multicolored lights, people out having fun, munching on an avocado taco from a food truck, and walking through a great hall to see various small business vendors felt pretty celebratory.
Of course we also can have anxiety—what will omicron hold for the area when it gets going here? Will it be worse or better than Delta? Will the booster I got in late October work in February and March? A degree of caution is healthy: we don’t want to live in a fantasy world where we wish masks were unnecessary so never wear them, or where Christian trust in God replaces the good sense of following the recommendations of epidemiologists to get a booster and mask up in public.
Surely we must care for the well being of people who are more vulnerable from the virus—I think about my mom who is older and whom I’ll be visiting soon. Finding the grain in the chaff requires good discernment and good discernment is practical and grounded in reality, not a fantasy of what we wish were true.
But at the end of the day, we have also to let the chaff fly away, or burn it if need be—that is, let go of the stuff that gets in the way of joy. Not a false joy of an ideal world that we wish it were, but joy in the real one. Where is God with us, right here, right now, no matter what else is happening?
My husband and I heard just a bit of Christmas carolers when out in Boston at SOWA markets Winter Festival last night. Our son and his girlfriend were with us and I took joy in how much they were enjoying some local donuts. Sometimes it’s the simple things—almost always it’s the simplest and most ordinary things—about which we can rejoice.