It’s one of the dramatic images of the Book of Exodus. Egypt’s pharaoh, reeling under the disasters of the 10 plagues, has finally agreed to let the Israelites go. The quickest and easiest way to the promised land was via the land of the Philistines, but God directs them through the wilderness of Egypt toward the Red Sea. He knew that if they immediately ran into battle and war with the Philistines, they’d immediately choose to return to Egypt and slavery.
“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people” (Exodus 13:21-22, English Standard Version). The distance wasn’t terribly far by modern standards, but upwards of a million people had to travel by day and by night. Speed was of the essence, because God knew the pharaoh would change his mind and come after them. The more complicated route would also set the stage for one of the great miracles recorded in the Old Testament – the parting of the sea to allow the Israelites’ passage, and its subsequent coming together to drown the Egyptian army.
This image of pillars leading the people to safety is an appropriate one for Oscar Truitt’s new poetry collection, Pillar of Fire: Poems for the Lenten Journey. Lent lasts for 40 days, similar to the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, and analogous to the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the Arabian peninsula. It is a time of preparation, and of setting aside worldly things, as Christians worldwide prepare for Holy Week, the crucifixion, and Easter or Resurrection Sunday. Truitt’s poems offer a way to mark and meditate upon each day until Easter.
Many of the poems are taken from specific verses and accounts of Scripture – the prodigal son, the publican and the Pharisee, the lilies of the field, Zacchaeus who climbed a tree to see Jesus walk by, the parable of the 10 virgins, Mary Magdalene, the betrayal by Judas, the prayer in Gethsemane, the rich man and the beggar, the raising of Lazarus, and the crucifixion. Others relate to people and practices in the Orthodox Church – the Adoration of the Cross, the Holy Martyrs, Saint Gregory Palamas, Saint Mary of Egypt, and Saint John of the Ladder.
Together, the poems are pulled from a rich tapestry of Scripture, tradition, and church history.
In one of the daily meditations, here’s how the poet explicates a passage of Scripture, the account of Jesus cursing the fig tree.
The Fig Tree
Nature requires of me
That I give something of myself
To those who come with hunger
On this path where I am planted;
But my life has been
Like a tree without fruit,
Unprepared for its season,
Grown, but not productive.
I have squandered all my talents
And they have not borne blossoms
Despite the good intentions
And promises I’d made.
Will it be my lot in life
To wither prematurely
Without ever having shown
I had something good to offer?
Truitt is a poet who is the author of The Yes That is Enlightenment. He is the administrator of the Facebook group Contemporary Psalms. He and his family live in Massachusetts.
Pillar of Fire is a welcome addition to the Lenten devotional genre. The poems possess a quiet beauty, often a starkness, as they take the reader through the 40 days of the period. And they are a reminder of why we should prepare and ready ourselves for what is coming.
Top illustration: Pillar of Fire by Paul Hardy in The Art Bible (1896), via Wikipedia.