As we gathered in the chapel to celebrate Eucharist, our friend and colleague Barbara was preparing to smudge the altar. In attempting to light her sweetgrass braid from the altar candle, she held it too close to the flame and for a moment too long, and the flame sputtered and died.
Well, one of the very best things about extinguishing beeswax candles, as many of us know, is the rich honey scent that the smoke carries across a space as it disperses from the tiny flame into the wide world and then vanishes.
It turns out that at the moment that Barbara’s sweetgrass braid put out the flame, an ember appeared on its tip. Its smoldering smoke joined that of the spreading honey-scented beeswax as Barbara slowly circled the altar. The blending of smoke from sweetgrass and smoke from beeswax filled the space with what you might call a providential aroma; both sweetgrass and beeswax were there, but so was something else, something at once brand new and ancient, the aroma of encounter, partnership, hope.
The encounter between beeswax and sweetgrass-between the settler church and indigenous peoples-has taken many shapes over the course of generations. And our shared history has left us both, in one way or another, diminished. The settler church lost the thread of God’s justice as it assumed a stance of cultural superiority and showed disdain for what the Creator was already doing before the first contact between Europeans and indigenous peoples. And the indigenous church was all too often denied its freedom to discern the incarnate Word in the languages and traditions written deep and long in the story of the people of the land.
The thing that has my attention is how the flame of the candle had to give way, if just for a moment, to the sweetgrass. The candle had to be at risk if the beautiful new thing-the smell of beeswax and sweetgrass-were to emerge. It’s complicated. It’s as if I couldn’t know, couldn’t really know all the dimensions of the beauty in the beeswax I bring from the customs of my ancestors, until, by gracious accident, it yielded to the braid of sweetgrass, until, by gracious accident, the sweetgrass transformed the candle’s light to smoke.
There was a lighter not far from the altar. So as Barbara smudged the altar, as the smoke of beeswax and the smoke of sweetgrass filled our noses, another of us restored the light of the candle. Nothing was lost, really. There was just that moment when one stepped back so another could thrive, and then there was more beauty, and then we prayed and gave thanks.
Archdeacon Michael Thompson is the general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada. His column, Refraction, appears every month at anglicanjournal.com