My parents are avid gardeners. When I visit, they proudly show me the miraculous growth of plants that started off as small clippings. In their Inland Empire suburban backyard, among the many florals, topicals, herbs and shrubs, you’ll find a lemon tree that seems to bear fruit year-round, surrounded by sugar canes and a guava tree whose branches became so heavy with fragrant fruit this past year that my father had to prop them up with planks to keep them from breaking. Things change every fall, though, with the coming of the Santa Ana winds. The Santa Anas were still blowing when I visited last weekend, not quite as bad as the seventy mile-per-hour gusts of the previous week, which had destroyed much of the backyard garden. My parents lamented the loss. In Fontana, just seven miles from their home, a wind-fueled fire that began at a pallet yard spread to homes and cars; it was just one of the many blazes the Santa Anas sparked in Los Angeles, Ventura, and San Bernardino Counties.
The Santa Anas highlight wind’s destructive potential. But wind has also historically been seen by humans as a creative force. For example, in Aztec creation mythology, the deity Ehécatl—god of air and wind, of creative and destructive wind, and of the breath of life—was a manifestation of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent that helped create humanity. In the first of two creation stories in the first chapter of the book of Genesis, the breath of God blows across the waters as God creates. In the second creation story, in chapter two, God blows or breathes (depending on the translation) the breath of life into humanity’s nostrils.
Though my parents bemoaned the mess the Santa Anas had made of their garden, my father consoled himself by saying, “At least the air will be clean for a while.” In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist at the Jordan River warns the Pharisees and Sadducees that: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12). Wind separates wheat from chaff. Though Matthew 3:12 is an apocalyptic warning of the final judgment to Pharisees and Sadducees, the imagery of the wheat and chaff can also help us reflect on the need to discern what is (or is not) serving us or leading us to an authentic life. If the Lord’s winnowing fan is in His hands, then may the divine wind separate what is life-giving and what is not within me.