Russian Sage boarders many of the fields of Little Bird Farm here in New Mexico. Its silvery-green stalks and lavender-colored flowers give fragrance to the air and color to the land. It has a mystical quality as well – something ancient and cleansing. White Sage is most commonly bundled for smudging in house-blessings but Russian Sage works well too.
The use of smoke to cleanse a place is a very old practice. The church has used resins for centuries as a symbol of ascending prayers and to block unpleasant human and animal odors. In scriptures, incense was representative of the smoke of sacrifice and was brought to Jesus by the Magi as one of the three gifts.
When I first moved to New Mexico, a new friend gave me a smudging stick for my birthday to cleanse my home and to begin a new life here. I light it just before guests arrive – a small ritual of cleansing in my home. “Whatever my failings in this home, may they be cleansed before my guests arrive. May we begin again. May we re-boot.”
Paul Tillich, in his meditation on Romans 5:20, discusses sin and grace as separation and union rather than as moral failing and divine restitution. He says that “sin” should never be spoken or written in the pleural. Sin is a condition, as is grace. They are part of being human. We sin. We live in a state of sin and in a state of grace. Many Christians do not much like this reality of the spiritual life because it makes it so much harder to label ourselves and others as “righteous” or as “sinners.” In my experience, “Accountability” is what people announce just before they begin scapegoating.
When I was younger and rather more worried about sin, it was important to be able to label sin, sinners, my own sins, times of sinfulness. These days I find it much more productive to light some sage and say some prayers, steep in mindfulness enough to see things and then just get on with life. Sin is a condition more than it is a series of moral failings.
I no longer believe that Santa Clause exists, nor do I believe that he had a list of who is naughty and who is nice. And I certainly do not believe that bad children received coal or nothing, while good children received bulging stockings and bountiful presents under the tree. And yet, that story is how many see God. White church-goers get presents while pagans in the middle-east and the African continent starve as divine justice. Hmm.
In Advent and Christmas, I sometimes miss my New England farm with its three woodstoves and snow-laden hills. Here in New Mexico Christmas and Advent will be different – filled with luminaria and cinnamon. And burning sage.
It will soon be Advent and time for a consideration of our longing for God. The sweet smoke from burned sage in my home is a reminder of God’s smoldering love rather more than God’s smoldering anger.