This past week my family and I had the opportunity to take a short camping/glamping vacation to Death Valley National Park. Camping because we did bring a tent with us. Glamping because my in-laws also brought a motor home, and so life was not all that rough. Perhaps in something of a response to the less rigorous nature of this particular trip, my wife and I took it in turns to sleep outside in sleeping bags, under the star-lit sky with a couple of our kids. Aside from the odd rustle in the bushes and a middle of the night coyote chorus, the tranquility and stillness of the night sky out there was magnificent. The enormity of the cosmos and the particularity of our own tiny corner of it came sharply into focus. I lay there, as my two boys dozed off, gazing heavenwards, wondering how others before, for years gone by, had done exactly the same – searching the firmament for all the ‘beyondness’ my eyes could take in.
Death Valley is the lowest place in North America and holds the record for the hottest ever recorded temperature in the western hemisphere. Its stark beauty is offset by a vibrant palette of color as geological landforms meld into one another. Although we were a couple of weeks too late to see the full extent of this year’s super-bloom, there were flowers a-plenty on some stretches of land along the roads and walkways. Yet the phenomenon in the park that fascinated me most was one that we did not manage to see, only hear about: the Racetrack. The Racetrack is a playa – a dry lakebed -which aside from its barren beauty is best-known for large rocks strewn across the cracked earth whose movement although not visible is attested to by the tracks that form behind them. As a theologian, the most wondrous element of the racetrack phenomenon for me is its mystery. Although some research has argued that a rare combination of rain and wind conditions enable the rocks to move, there is not consensus among scientists and other students of the park as to why the movements occur.
Today marks the day when another strange movement took place in the midst of God’s creation, this time in the annunciation to a young Jewish girl that she was bearing a child, even though she was still a virgin. Mary’s perplexed question, “How can this be?” has been the question posed by many who see the Virgin birth as yet another instance of Christianity’s loose relationship with probable historical events. The resurrection of Mary’s son, Jesus, from the dead, the parting of the Red Sea, and the other miraculous actions of God through the course of salvation history are seen by some as testaments to the incredulity of having faith in the God who favored Mary, whilst for others they are like rocks that move imperceptibly across a valley floor: mysteries we believe without seeing for ourselves.
Given this gap – indeed this sometimes chasm between those who would trust in the promises of an unseen God and those who can no longer or never could to start with believe in the goodness of a creator in a world of such suffering and pain – what should be made of Mary and the promise made to her that of her son’s kingdom ‘there will be no end’? For the Christians and others in Palmyra, Syria, who suffered in recent months, reportedly with great brutality at the hands of ISIS fighters, the kingdom of the Prince of Peace must have seemed a far off country. Like rocks slowly drifting across ancient valley floors, like Mary’s gift of pure grace, the ancient ruins of Palmyra offer us today a memory, a glimpse of our forebears and how they sought to make meaning in their own place and time. Some archeologists now claim that this world heritage site is no longer to be persevered for the sake of our appreciation of antiquity alone but also because it bears witness to the shedding of innocent blood. It is at once a relic and a living tomb. For the sake of those who died, for the sake of those Mary’s in our world today who take on responsibilities to care for children while they are still young, and for the sake of all people who would dare to believe in a world where peace not terror reigns, we must cling on to the belief that we are not left to our own devises to make what we will of this world. We must remain steadfast that in the end it is the conception of life not the deception of fear and death that drives the human spirit, that allows us to see the Spirit of the holy one at work even when that work is barely visible. May we too know Mary’s grace.