Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 40:1-8) transports me to a primeval wood, where, as Sam Walter Foss describes in his poem, A calf walked home, as good calves should; But made a trail all bent askew, a crooked trail, as all calves do. / Since then three hundred years have fled, and, I infer, the calf is dead. But still he left behind his trail and thereby hangs my moral tale. The poem goes on to describe how first a dog found that trail and walked it, and then a flock of sheep, and eventually some people found it, and over the years the crooked forest path became a lane, and then a road, a village street, and then a city’s crowded thoroughfare, before finally becoming the central avenue for a great metropolis, where each day a hundred thousand follow the route started by that lone calf who walked home through the wild woods. There’s a lesson, Sam Walter Foss says, that this tale could teach, but he is not ordained to preach, so we are left with the image of the calf’s creation of a sacred groove on which others would move, causing the old wood gods to laugh at the power of tradition.
I thought of this poem when I read Isaiah this morning, because the prophet envisions a path prepared for a coming savior through the wilderness. This seems so unlikely. Wilderness is that place untouched by human activity, that place celebrated by Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry as essential to human life, even though it is essential that humans leave it alone in order to preserve it. As Thoreau said, In wildness is the preservation of the world. It is a place, the prophet must have known and understood, that resists all efforts at commodification, and therefore, is not valued highly in the marketplace. The spotlight always shines on the metropolis, the center of human activity, the power base. The 24 hour news and entertainment cycle wants us to believe that the locus of our attention should be in these strongholds of human activity. And so you would think, if a savior was going to come, a wide swath would be cut right through the center of all this activity. There would be a route laid out through the busy streets of Rome or Jerusalem or Washington or New York or Beijing. That’s where the action is, and that’s where the prophet should be preparing a path. But it’s not. Isaiah envisions the Lord coming in via a very alternate route – through the wilderness. Through a space, in the mind of the Hebrews, that was associated with wandering and bitter complaint, hunger and thirst, failure and fear. It’s not where the spotlight shines. It was the threatening haunt of wild beasts.
And here we are, those of us who share the gospel writers’ interpretation of this prophetic text, not merely 3 centuries removed, but 2 millennia removed from the fulfillment, when not a calf, but a Christ, walked home and created a path for the first time, a path through the abandoned and neglected and devalued and marginal spaces of his world. That path has, like the calf’s, morphed over time into lane and road and street, eventually becoming the main thoroughfare for the center of power, as the world’s greatest empire is, in the minds of many, supposed to be a Christian nation. I wonder, though, if that wilderness path doesn’t lead us right back out of the spotlight, if it doesn’t keep winding back into those spaces that are neglected and abandoned and rejected and devalued and marginalized. I wonder if the sacred groove leads us not up Capitol steps or into the arenas of rock stardom, but instead works its way into the back alleys of the homeless and the hungry, the undomesticated spaces of psych wards and prison cells, the wild and threatening deserts of border crossings. Who knows, following that rarely trodden path might just give God cause to take a cue from the poem’s old wood gods and laugh right out loud.
What about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.