the penultimate WORD
2004 - December
The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
And Jesus cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”
I do cross word puzzles with a pencil. I know some people who use a pen. They are more confident. But not me. I rely on the eraser. Some newsprint I have worn almost through with my corrections.
Sometimes it is a simple spelling error. At other times I’m just wrong.
Like the other day, I needed a nine-letter word beginning with “d” and ending with “y”. The clue was obscure: “A Navajo symbol associated with water and springtime.” I kept going back to the clue as I worked around the puzzle. Finally the word began to emerge – almost by default – “dragonfly”. I was reminded of a painting by Shelley Foster that hangs in my living room. The canvass depicts a majestic dragonfly with diaphanous wings.
Shelley told me that the natives of the southwest saw the dragonfly as a sign of hope – that water would be nearby. The Navajo word for dragonfly, táni·l’ái means, “Which is spread out on water”. In Navajo mythology, táni·l’ái were harmful to man until subdued by Holy Man.
The most common places that you will find these creatures are in forest glades or near rivers. As symbols of water they are frequently depicted around representations of pools in the center of sand paintings.
Most species of dragonflies prefer still waters on which to lay their eggs though some species have adapted to the running waters of streams and brooks.
I was grateful for Shelley’s explanation.
In my youth European mythology had prevailed. The dragonfly was avoided at all costs. They would sew up the lips of lying children – those who knew had told us – and we all have told a fib at some time or other! A summer visit to the beach at Princess Park would have us holler and plunge under the water as nature’s helicopter hovered over the expanse of water.
How were we to know that our peels of defensive glee had no effect in warding off the harmless dragonfly overhead – incapable of darning anything, lying lips notwithstanding!
A different image began to emerge, armed with Shelley’s enthusiastic explanation.
The account of Jesus’ visit to the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles came to mind.
“On the last day of the festival,” John wrote in the seventh chapter of his Gospel, “the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’”
The hope of the believer’s heart became an image of the dragonfly emerging as a symbol of Jesus’ proclamation recorded there. Jesus had cried out! Many would have heard, and many would have turned away. His words would have fallen on deaf ears, sewn up by preoccupation or possibly their indifference. Hubris had stopped their hearing. Others, knowing their thirst, conscious of their need, witnessed Jesus’ outrageous action accompanying his words. Amphorae of water overthrown gushed out over the stones, cascading over steps.
Water in abundance! Clean water! Fresh water! Living water!
The image of the Spirit of God erupting into the lives of men and women was startling – no less now as then. But the promise of the cold refreshment of tapped subterranean aquifers offers hope to a despairing world.
Some sidestepped Jesus’ dramatic gesture while others heard a pledge of a gift that would quench the deepest thirst of those that knew their need. While some avoided the out-pouring of water, annoyed at the action, others – caught in a moment’s epiphany – found themselves briefly ankle-deep in water that just as quickly rushed away.
That image prompted me to select the remarkable tree ornament I discovered last December: a sequined dragonfly with transparent wings. I bought it at The Bay while I visited my daughter and her husband in Prince George last Advent. It was a curious addition to ornaments stocking the shelves. Of all the ornaments I use to trim my tree, the dragonfly is perhaps the most subtle in its quiet witness. The gift of the Spirit is often overlooked at this gift-giving season. The dragonfly reminds me that I am a recipient of God’s favour. My thirst, I have discovered, has enabled me to crouch and cupping my hands, drink deeply. Nothing else would have allowed me to offer such obeisance at a manger. Only thirst bent my knee. My need humbled me to both recognize and accept the promise offered.
I didn’t decorate my tree with the dragonfly ornament last year – a heart attack interrupted my Christmas celebration. I was learning to bend the knee, as it were.
It will hang on a branch this year however. Like other ornaments that weigh down boughs, this curious symbol holds out hope and is a reminder of a thirst long slaked. The birth of One whose voice was heard above the crush seems appropriately marked with the dragonfly that was subdued by Holy Man.
Copyright © 2004 James T. Irvine
penultimate WORD - Festivals of Light Series