What is your favorite Irish word?
So it was another great St. Patrick’s day weekend, with green beer flowing, and for many, the extra Irish privilege of feeling guilty for eating corned beef and cabbage on a Friday in Lent. All of that got me to thinking about my favorite Irish word. Grieshog. It describes the process of burying warm coals in ashes at night in order to preserve the fire for the cold morning to come. And it was vitally important process to the Irish, especially during the famines that wracked the land. Instead of sweeping the hearth clean at the day’s end, or even first thing in the morning, they would carefully ‘bank’ the still glowing embers in the ashes, surrounding them in a blanket of ashes. The ashes slowed the flow of oxygen enough so that the fire was preserved underneath the ‘useless ash’. In the morning, all they needed to do was to carefully blow away the ashes to get to the still glowing coals. In a country where farming was so difficult, rather than waste time building a new fire each day, they’d search through the ashes to the still glowing embers and breathe on them to stir them back into flame. Greishog. It was vital to the Irish.
I wonder if that is also a description of what life does to us at times. Life takes difficult turns, tragic ones, broken ones and almost before we know it, layers of ash cover more and more deeply, and the embers lose their heat and begin to grow cold. Life does that to us. Certainly our sinfulness does that to us as well. It covers the glory that we are with first a fine layer of ash, and then more and more and soon, what used to be fire becomes ashes. That’s the tragedy of ashes. They used to be fire. And the glory we once knew is buried so far down and so deep, it is hard to believe that we can ever be fire again.
Today’s gospel is also a story of Grieshog. It is about a woman who knew all about ashes and brokenness and a fire long smothered by life.
• She was a woman in a culture were women were little more than property.
• She was a Samaritan – hated by the Jews, cast out by a centuries old hatred, someone whose mere presence made you ritually unclean.
• She was an outcast in her own society – coming at noon. Only “THOSE” kind of people came at noon. Everyone else came before the heat of the day. She came when she knew no one would be there, to accuse her, to talk about her, to laugh at her.
• She was a failure. She had been married not once but 5 times and is on relationship #6 – seeking, hoping, wanting to find someone who would love her.
Ashes, upon ashes, upon ashes, with the fire within all but suffocated.
And in a conversation that is so gentle and so amazing, Jesus begins to SIFT through the layers, to blow the ashes from her life. He promises living waters. He promises her true worship. Gently he invites her to the truth that he is the one she hoped for, dreamed for. And in his caring and conversation and gentle dialogue, the fire that had almost gone out is touched again. And it becomes a flame. It becomes an inferno. And she RUNS. She runs back to the community that had rejected and scorned and exiled her. “Come, come and see! Come and meet the one who told me that I have a soul. Come and see the one who stirred up in me what I thought I would never know again, what I would never find again. Don’t you know, you and I, we have this soul, this glory burning within. And if you’ll let him, the man at the well will set it free in you like he set it free in me. Come, you’ve got to come…”
That’s who our savior is. That’s who our God wants to be for us. The one who blows off the ashes and clears away whatever it is that keeps us from being fire. NO matter how the ashes got there. No matter who put them there.
The most striking time in my life I knew this was at the Chrism mass the year that the priest sex scandal broke out. It was a tough year. I had a classmate arrested for images found on his computer. A priest who was close to a lot of the students at UMSL was arrested and waiting for trial. An article about the scandal was on the front page of the paper for ~174 days in a row. It was just a tough year. Bit by bit, the ashes were piling on, but so softly, I didn’t notice. I didn’t realize the depth of the ashes, slowly covering my soul.
My brother priests and I were in line for the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral, snaking around the side of the building, waiting to go in via the front doors. Word passed through that there were people in front demonstrating. “Oh. This is going to be great.” We rounded the corner, and there they were. Lined up. Standing there, holding signs. Clapping. Clapping? And then I could start to read the signs. “Thanks for being a priest.” “Thanks for serving us so well.” And a small kid with one that said: “I want to be a priest.” 15 years later and I still am overwhelmed by the grace of that moment. I couldn’t stop crying for the first 20 minutes of mass. It was as if someone had blown all the ashes off the priesthood that I loved so well and said: It’s okay to burn again. It’s okay to have a pastor’s soul. It is okay to be a priest, even in this broken time.” And the savior who blew the ashes away from the woman at the well and set her feet running to her people, blew away all the heartache and pain and struggle of that tough year. The forgiveness came from the very people of God who had been so wounded by us priests and bishops. And the fire burned again. The fire burned again.
This Third Sunday in Lent, what is the fire that has slowly been suffocated by the ashes of life? Spend some time, asking God for the grace to see where the fire has become ashes. And then invite our Lord to do what he does best – grieshog – to blow away all the pain and struggle and ashes, so that you and I might be FIRE for the world.