You visit the earth and water it… You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. – Psalm 65
During Lent on a farm in the upper midwest, God is hard at work in the waterways.
Lent starts as a season of sharp contrasts, separated by the two thin sheets of plastic that comprise the greenhouse walls.
Outside those walls, snow covers all. But as the snow starts to melt, faint ridges appear on the surface of fields. It is the work of the subsoiler, performed months before but only reaching its fruition now.
Subsoiling involves dragging a single, massive steel hook through the ground at regular intervals across a field. Its sole purpose is to rip through the compacted hardpan layer a foot or more below the surface. (Most tillage equipment reaches down 8 inches, at best.)
The real magic happens over the winter: rain, and then snow, send water into the trenches. As it freezes and thaws repeatedly, the water itself further fractures that previously impenetrable hardpan. Come spring, crops planted in a subsoiled field are visibly healthier–their roots can grow deeper into more nutrient-dense subsoil. New channels exist for air and water to reach those roots. The fields are more resilient too: the risk of spring rain flooding a field’s compacted surface is diminished.
That’s what’s happening underground. It’s signified, to the knowing eye, by those peaks and valleys that form in the melting snow.
Inside greenhouse walls, new life springs forth improbably from tiny, hard seeds. Buried just-so in fertile potting soil, they’ve been nurtured and softened by frequent, gentle watering and the magnified warmth and light of the sun.
By the time Holy Week rolls around, tens of thousands of seedlings will cover these greenhouse tables.
A few weeks later, they will be planted in the renewed face of those fields that now roll quietly under the snow.
A few weeks after that, it will be time for the first harvest.
The word Lent refers to the “lengthening of days” that characterizes the season in the northern hemisphere. As the days grow longer, the ground softens and the seedlings grow stronger. The worlds inside and outside the greenhouse walls slowly come together to produce the miracle of daily bread.
Lent is a season of repentance–of return to right relationship with God and one another and all creation. Every year, we are invited, in the words of our Ash Wednesday liturgy, to “make a right beginning of repentance” by putting on ashes. We pray that those ashes will help us “remember that it is only by [God’s] gracious gift that we are given everlasting life.”
The ashes of Lent coincide with life taking root against the odds, inside and outside the greenhouse walls. Farmers make some key interventions at key moments, but the real work of new life happens beyond our efforts. It is only by God’s grace that we too are given our mortal sustenance. This is repentance in a most basic form: a return to a truer, more immediate sense of how much we depend on God for our daily bread.
Lent on the farm isn’t just a time of things coming together and new life springing forth; it is also a time of death, and things falling apart. Every year, despite our most careful planning, some spring crops fail. Rain floods a newly seeded field. Frost destroys a thousand seedlings in a single night. There is no new life without risk.
In Lent, we journey toward the living waters of baptism that will spring forth at the Easter Vigil. During these lengthening days on the farm, my work is shaped by the all-powerful nature of water.
Water brings life forth in the greenhouse.
Water prepares a new and more resilient paths in the deep trenches under a field.
Water brings death and destruction by flood and frost.
Lent reminds me of how dangerous the living water is — and also how necessary.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth. – Isaiah 55:10-11
How is God working through Creation in Lent where you live?