The following is an article I wrote for the St. Francis parish bulletin, December, 2021.
Hello all. Luke is out sick this week, so I am taking on the task of writing a few words about this weekend’s liturgy, or actually its Scripture reading. The Gospel this Sunday is from St. Luke, and in it John the Baptist gives advice to people on how to prepare for the Messiah. At the end he makes a declaration:
“I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.”(Luke 3:16-17)
Many of us in the Northern Plains have farming backgrounds. I was lucky enough to have Grandparents who farmed near Langdon, N.D., for six decades. Being around the farm gave me many experiences that became a part of me, and for that I am extremely grateful. My favorite time to be on the farm was harvest season.
Among other crops, my Grandfather raised hard red spring wheat for bread flour. In his part of the country the moisture content of the wheat was too high to sell when first harvested, so instead of taking the grain “straight” as is common farther south, harvesting was a two-step process.
First the farmer would swath—or cut—the wheat so that it lay on the ground in windrows. Then, after a few days’ curing when the moisture content had dropped, the farmer would come along with a combine harvester, a large machine whose purpose was to pick up the swaths and separate the grain in the heads from the stems of the wheat. Then the grain would be stored in a hopper on top of the combine, until it could be offloaded onto a truck, and the chopped-up stems would be expelled as chaff from the back of the harvester.
During harvest season chaff was in the air all over farm country. It made for beautiful red sunsets and red “harvest” moons. But, as anyone who has ever been around a running combine knows, the bad part about chaff was what it did to you. Chaff was sticky, scratchy, sweaty stuff. It got in your hair and made your head itch, and it got in your clothes and made your body itch. The only way to be rid of it was to take a shower and change clothes. If the sun happened to be hot that day, as it usually was, chaff only compounded the discomfort.
In this Gospel the Baptist is promising that the Lord will burn the chaff. Chaff is, as we have seen, a by-product of the harvesting process and is useful for nothing, only serving as an irritant. Is John actually saying that some people are useless irritants, destined to be burned in “unquenchable fire”? It sure looks that way.
As with any hard saying, the only thing we can really do is apply it to ourselves. What does it mean to be “useful” to God? God doesn’t need anything, but we can respond to His love by giving Him our love. By loving God and our neighbor we can be “useful.” Advent time is the perfect season to take an inventory, asking ourselves how well we are loving God and our neighbor. If there are short-comings, we need not fear. A new year calls for a new start, and we can begin again many times if we need to.
May you and your family celebrate a beautiful and holy Christmas season, and may the blessings of St. Francis de Sales, St. Dominic Savio, and all of Heaven be with you.