Texts: Acts 4:33-35 (sharing the wealth) * “Mint” by Seamus Heaney
“April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”
So begins “The Wasteland,” one of the most influential poems of the past 100 years. Published in 1922 by the Nobel Prize winning poet T.S. Eliot, it is considered a modernist masterpiece.
Every April, the opening sentence from this poem pops into my mind. Still, I have never read the entirety of “The Wasteland.” My excuses include the poem’s length – it is more than 3,000 words – and the amount of cultural knowledge it demands.
The Wikipedia entry on “The Wasteland” states that it “employs many literary and cultural allusions — from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare; from Buddhism; and from the Hindu Upanishads.” It continues to say that “the poem shifts between voices of satire and prophecy, and it features abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location, and time, which conjures a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures.” Hmmm.
I can imagine how these allusions might add to some people’s appreciation of the poem; but they pre-suppose a higher level of education than my own.
I have a love/hate relationship with poetry. When I was in school, some of the poems I read pierced my heart. But many more were like “The Wasteland” and left me frustrated with how impenetrable they seemed.
Nevertheless, I appreciate “The Wasteland’s” suggestion that April mixes memory and desire and in a way that can feel cruel. The sights and smells of springtime give rise to clouds of memories that are both bitter and sweet. Most of us love the onrush of new life each spring even if it may remind us of past loves, lost friends, and regrets about missed opportunities.
This year, I especially remember last April when Canada had entered the second month of pandemic restrictions. Now, one year later and as a third wave of the pandemic has gained strength, I can say with great confidence that Albertans are united in our approach to the pandemic!
Just kidding. Albertans may be united by a shared sense of frustration, but political polarization around COVID-19 is sharp. Close to half of Albertans think restrictions are too tight, close to half think they are too lax, and a small group in the middle think the government has got things about right.
The arrival of spring and the news that more than 20% of Albertans have had at least one shot of a vaccine have given rise to hope. But the increase in case numbers and hospitalizations dims these hopes as do reports that summer gatherings like the Folk Festival have been cancelled for second year in a row.
On Friday evening, Kim and I drove to Hawrelak Park to enjoy the beauty of the evening, and we loved the scene. Unlike last April, the park was busy with people walking the trails and families enjoying picnics. We thoroughly enjoyed being there.
But on the drive home, we passed a townhouse where a group of 20 young people had gathered for a large party in the front yard. They were unmasked and not physically distanced; and they brandished a sign stating, “If you honk, we drink!” Perhaps they were university students celebrating the last day of classes. Perhaps they were the youth group of GraceLife church!
I thought about reporting this gathering, but since I have little confidence in the government’s ability to control the pandemic, I did not.
More than a year ago, Canada’s Atlantic provinces and many countries in East Asia adopted policies that helped to control the pandemic. But jurisdictions like Alberta seem incapable of learning from them; and this means the six provinces west of New Brunswick are living through a third wave of disease and a second spring of public health restrictions, with growing levels of non-compliance.
It also means that this April I feel torn between memories of past springs with their promises of travel, relaxation, and carefree living and the reality of the pandemic’s third wave.
But regardless of how I feel, this is still April, and we are still in the season of Easter. Every Easter, the Lectionary directs us to reflect on passages from the Book of Acts like the one we heard this morning. In those few verses from chapter 4, the author paints a utopian picture of the followers of Jesus who live communally in Jerusalem after the first Easter.
This past week, I stumbled upon a story of Christian group that tried to live into this vision. It was from an episode of Ideas about the English civil wars of the 1640s, which CBC Radio broadcast on Tuesday. King Charles I had ruled England without calling parliament through the 1630s. But his need for new taxes in a war with Scotland forced him to recall parliament in 1640.
Parliament was dominated by radical Presbyterians and Puritans, and their distaste for Charles’ Anglicanism and his wife’s Catholicism led to a standoff that eventually led to two civil wars. In both cases the New Model Army defeated the Royal Army and these defeats resulted in the trial and execution of Charles in 1649 and the creation of a short-lived Protestant republic under the authority of Parliament and its revolutionary leader Oliver Cromwell.
The program discussed two of the main republican groups: The Levelers who advocated for parliamentary supremacy and universal male suffrage and The Diggers who advocated for social equality. The Diggers were a group of religious purists who, after the execution of King Charles in January 1649, set up a commune in Surrey — in April of that year, as it happens. In this commune, they tried to turn the vision of sharing everything from Acts into reality. They changed common pastureland into cultivated fields and vowed to share the proceeds equally within the community.
The Diggers took today’s reading from Acts literally; and I appreciated how this Ideas episode reminded me of them. Both their dreams and their failures echo some of the desires aroused by spring and the cruel realities that sometimes thwart those Easter desires.
Seamus Heaney’s poem “Mint” captures this jumbled sense of Easter. He describes new life that springs up unawares amidst rubbish and refuse and suggests that the unexpected appearance of a mint plant can be like Jesus’ promise that last things will be first and prisoners will be liberated. A green mint leaf may only hint at those promises, but sometimes a hint is enough.
In this ragged April filled with both promise and peril, I hope we will remember times when liberation occurred and times when it was delayed. Both can be grist for the mills of poets and for radical Christian groups like The Diggers.
Sometimes we need only the smell of a mint leaf or a scrap of Scripture to bring our Easter hopes to life. At other times, they rely on the full flood of social change that ends a pandemic or releases innocent people from prison.
In whatever way Easter hope appears in our hearts and minds this year, I pray that our desires for freedom and our memories of past springtimes will keep our hearts tuned to love, our minds questing for new life, and our limbs primed for the work of love and justice.
May it be so. Amen.