Embers and Ebbs

This post was written by Belle on her blog “Seeing everything else” on WordPress. It’s very much from a Christian perspective. However, it’s more generally applicable than that. It celebrates ’embers’ in the metaphorical as well as the literal sense, which is encouraging for those of us of mature years. I hope you enjoy it!

Seeing Everything Else

Embers and Ebbs

Embers are strangely beautiful things.

We had an impromptu bonfire the other night, enjoying the happy crackling of the blaze and the exhilarating, whooshing roar of a marshmallow turning into a torch. But although I enjoy eating s’mores, although I enjoy being loud and laughing about it, neither of those are the best parts of the fire. The most lovely part is just sitting, still in body and mind, watching the flames run and the heat ebb.

And perhaps the most beautiful flow of all its life is when it gets down to embers. The flames long-gone, the warmth and depth of wood-fire-smoke becoming a part of you, these embers still glow and dance long into the night. Ever-fluttering light, as if a thousand heartbeats were jumping inside, every now and again a single flame popping up and dashing lightly back into another hiding spot, as if a thousand tiny faeries of heat were dancing…

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I’ve been in Switzerland this weekend, staying with my daughter and her family. Unfortunately I haven’t found time to finish the story that I planned to post today – I’m sorry about that. However, we went into Sion this afternoon and saw the carnival. I’ve written a brief account that I hope you enjoy!wp_20170225_14_18_18_pro

The sousaphone player marched at the back of the band. He must have been as strong as an ox, because his was no ordinary sousaphone but a monster. It needed a full breath for every note. The tone blended with the boom of the big drum, providing a rhythmic, percussive bass for the ensemble. The bandsmen wore costumes so brightly coloured that a jester in motley would have been an austere figure beside them.

The Carnaval de Sion is an annual event, one of many carnivals in Valais that take place just before Lent. Its origins, though, predate the church’s calendar, having their roots deep in pagan beliefs. Thousands of people take part in the march, almost all in bizarre, and even sinister garb. If I tell you that a voodoo display was amongst the milder disguises you’ll get the idea. Tens of thousands come to watch, and, delightfully, many of the spectators come in costume too. The throb of the drums and the rhythmic music arouse a sense of magic, of possibility.

I sat in a café, drinking an Americano and watching. A monstrous pirate ship mounted on a lorry came down the street. Every so often, the pirates fired a cannon, filling the street with smoke, and, amid shrieks of laughter, showering bucketfuls of sparkling confetti over the crowd. The café where I had my vantage point was on a corner that the pirates needed to round, an operation that required them to strike their colours, lower the black sail, and take down the mast. Halfway through this one of them fired the cannon, earning scowls and suitably piratical curses from his colleagues.

One spectator, perhaps thirteen years old, was in a white dress like a bride. I watched as she ran around with a group of boys of similar age carrying light sabres. She seemed very familiar with all their games; if it weren’t for the dress you would have thought she was one of them. Two men in cowboy costumes, hand in hand, picked their way through the crowd.

The town square was filled with stalls, mostly selling food and drink, featuring such traditional Swiss fare as crepes, fajitas, pies and curry, with plenty of German beer to wash it down. A metre of beer cost forty Swiss francs, which seemed rather expensive. I gave it a miss this year; maybe I’ll try it next year.

I cut through back streets, and when I rejoined the route of the procession I found that I had overtaken the band. The sousaphone player was still at the back, still blowing one breath to every profound note, still synchronised perfectly with the man on the bass drum. The costumes no longer seemed outlandish. Like the carnival itself, like the spectators, they were just a representation of some of the colourful ways we can all be human. 

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The Annunciation

Although I was only fifteen years old, I knew enough to realise that I was expecting a baby. As I helped Susannah, the Rabbi’s wife, prepare the family meal, I was queasily aware of my belly. I hoped that my father and brother would soon have finished their conversation with the elders, and we could go home together.
“Don’t worry, girl,” Susannah chided. “Things happen. You’ll be fine. My Reuben will see that everything is managed discreetly.”
I wanted to weep. Everybody would know. I would be disgraced. Look! Susannah had guessed already, and I wasn’t six weeks gone.
“There now, child, of course I know. There’s only one reason why a girl would come here with her father to speak to the Rabbi and the elders.”
“It happens most years, Mary. A girl will be betrothed and then have to marry a little sooner than planned. The baby comes early. Everybody can count the months, but nobody says anything. You’ll still be a respectable married woman with a fine child.” I stayed silent.
“It’s not Joseph’s child, is it?” Susannah spoke casually, almost without interest you might think. I shook my head.
“Well, that’s not so good, but Joseph, he’s generous and he wants a wife. At his age that’s not always easy”. Her eyes were far away as she thought about how things could be worked out. “Tell me about it, girl. Maybe I can help.”
I started slowly. “It was six weeks ago – the first hot day of the year. Everybody was laughing and joking as we got on with spring-cleaning. Dad and Jesse were in the lower part of the house, mending the animal stall, and I had just come down from the upper room with an armful of bedding to wash.
Then I saw the stranger. He was standing right beside the door, and he seemed to shine. He was tall and straight. His face was like a king’s, very handsome and stern.”
I looked doubtfully at Susannah. She nodded, slowly and thoughtfully. “Go on,” she encouraged me.
“Dad noticed him too, and stepped towards him with Jesse following. ‘Shalom’ said Dad. The stranger held up his hand and they stopped. I thought Dad was trying to say something, but no sound was coming out.
‘Hail, Mary,’ said the stranger. ‘You have found favour with Yahweh.’
‘Don’t be afraid.’ His voice was beautiful. It was gentle and yet, had he shouted, rocks would have tumbled from the mountains and the sea risen in tumult. ‘Yahweh is pleased with you,’ he said. ‘Listen!’
’You are going to become pregnant, and give birth to a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High. Yahweh will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will rule over the House of Jacob and his reign will have no end.’
What would you have thought, Susannah? All I could think was how on earth could I be pregnant? I’d never done anything that would get me pregnant. So I just said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I don’t see how that can be. I’m not married yet, and I’m a virgin.’
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and so the child will be holy, and will be called the Son of God.
And, Mary, your kinswoman Elizabeth has conceived a son, and is now in her sixth month. Everybody said that she was barren, but nothing is impossible to God.’
He stopped speaking then, Susannah, and stood looking at me. It was the strangest thing. Somehow I knew that I had to choose. There was the life I had always dreamed of as a wife and mother, loved by my family and respected by my neighbours – or there was the promise of the….angel.”
“What did you answer?” Susannah’s voice was hoarse.
“I said ‘Let Yahweh’s will be done.’”
Susannah sighed. “You did well. It will be hard for you, though. It’s lucky that your father and brother witnessed the angel. Is that what they’re telling the elders?”
I nodded.
“Even so, you’ll have to go away. Go and see Elizabeth. Have the baby somewhere else. The townsfolk would accept an illegitimate child if you were discreet, but some people might call your story blasphemy.”
She was right, of course, and Joseph, that good, dear, trusting man took me to Elizabeth, and then to Bethlehem. And since then, what a life it’s been! We fled from Herod’s soldiers into exile in Egypt. My son grew up, worked miracles, healed the sick, even raised the dead. And then that terrible day; I can’t talk about it; it was a day no mother should ever have to see. My soul was pierced with the agony.
I know it was Yahweh’s will. I believe that through it great good will come. My son’s closest disciples told me that they’d met him again after that day, talked with him, eaten with him. But he never appeared to me. Perhaps that was best. He who died was flesh of my flesh; He who rose – who was he? My son died; it was Yahweh’s son who rose.
And so I wait. I’m old, my braided hair is snow white and my face is furrowed. Yahweh’s will has been done, as it had to be. And yet I wonder greatly.
You see, I could have said “No”.