1st Sunday of Advent (C)
In a town I once called home there grew for 250 years a tree, an historic tree, the largest Pepperidge tree in the Northeastern United States, in fact. “Old Peppy,” as it was called, was, for reasons not appreciated by me (and many other residents) girdled and cut down earlier this year.
Have you witnessed a tender shoot pushing its way through the gnarled bark of a tree stump? Or have you seen a sapling emerge from the ground where a great tree once stood? What an unlikely but meaningful sign of resilience it would be to see new shoots emerging from the soil beneath the enormous canopy Old Peppy once provided.
Root systems left untreated after a tree is cut down continue their subterranean existence, secretly absorbing water and nutrients as they await the right conditions to send up vigorous new growth. Nature’s exuberance for life is not always received with enthusiasm. If shoots emerged from the former site of a tree that you intentionally cut down, this restorative miracle of nature might not give you the same thrill as it does me. Still, it is difficult not to be impressed when new life emerges from what was thought to be dead, particularly from something of great or profound significance.
The biblical reference to a shoot being raised from a lifeless stump follows the “book of consolation” contained in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah [Jer 30-31]. This passage [Jer 33:14-16], is read on the first Sunday of Advent, Year C, and represents the promise of a righteous and just leader who will restore and reunite the house of Judah and Israel.
Christians hear in this reading the promise of Jesus, the Messiah. The just shoot grows, and the world is changed forever. God keeps God’s promises. Oh, come, oh come, Emmanuel! With Christmas, we celebrate not only the birth of Jesus but the restoration and reunification of the world which God-with-us has set in motion. We know Jesus has come, and this is cause for endless celebration.
Like a dormant root system awaiting the right conditions for growth, the season of Advent is a time for patience. It is an opportunity to work on our own spirituality—to allow the tender shoot to grow unhindered, to work its way through the hardened, splintered and frequently lifeless stump that we allow ourselves to become. Cut down by relentless negativity and fear, and deprived of living water, the restorative breath of the Holy Spirit and the light of Christ’s face, we forget to love, we forget how to really love. With Advent eyes, we watch, and we wait. We make room; we open up the hardened places and invite Jesus in. We open the door of our hearts to a loved one, a friend, a stranger, to the poor, the wealthy, the humble, the arrogant, to the enemy. With intentionality—in Advent and at all times—we strive to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” [1 Thes 3:12], for from love pours care, nourishment, light—all things that allow tender young shoots to grow and flourish.
Every year I vow, “This year I will attend to Advent properly.” I decide to begin each day with the chosen Scripture for the season and a reflection of a favorite Saint, mystic, or spiritual writer. I set out my Advent wreath with fresh candles and the intention of lighting it each night. I attempt to go about my daily activities with a contemplative spirit. I make this promise to myself so that when Christmas day arrives I will have prepared a dwelling place in my heart, ready to receive Jesus as if for the first time, and the meaning of Christmas will be made new.
I start out with these good intentions, just as many do, I suspect, but more often than not, my plans for a reflective and prayerful Advent get usurped by the shopping and baking and decorating for Christmas day. Not that these are necessarily bad things; Advent is a time of anticipation, and part of its joy is in the preparation that surrounds the celebration of Christmas.
This year, however, with the image of the tender shoot in mind, my vow becomes less structured and more organic. In addition to daily prayer. I will cultivate the growth of a tender shoot within myself by seeking and opening my heart to the emerging Christ child in whatever form he should take. This begins with love.
The new life that Advent promises is growing within us; it has the power to break through hardened and gnarled hearts. For within a fragile shoot there exists what, if nurtured and allowed to flourish, can grow mightier than the ancient stump from which it emerged.