New Growth from Old Wood

just shoot1st 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.

And the infant church was born.

Pentecost Sunday (B)

“Breathe gently on her face.” This was the advice my sister gave me many years ago when I could not comfort my inconsolable newborn daughter. I did what my sister suggested and was as startled by my baby’s response as she apparently was by my breath. Her crying stopped, and she inhaled, deeply. I might have imagined it, but I recall being rewarded with a squishy little newborn smile. Amazing. The feeling of my breath calmed her. Infants will cry for any and every reason, and even after having every need fulfilled, they. just. cry. Experts say crying is related to the developing central nervous system, but as far as I was concerned my baby girl’s distress was more about her new life outside my womb. From the very start, I carried her in a sling wrapped tightly against my chest, but now it seemed that my breath calmed her as much as the warmth my body and the sound of my heart. I later learned that blowing on an infant’s face is used in many settings. For example, it is one of the techniques used in “water babies” swimming classes to teach infants how to hold their breath underwater. I’m sure there is a physiological reason for this response, but I believe my ability to calm my newborn daughter in this way had less to do with science and more to do with her recognition of me through my breath.

Biblically speaking, the breath and its cosmic cousin, wind, are highly significant symbols. And no day expresses the power of both more than the feast of Pentecost, the day on which Christians celebrate the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit on Jesus’ disciples. The Christian Liturgy for Pentecost includes two distinct accounts: one is dramatic and fiery, and the other is quiet and instructive. The first, from the Acts of the Apostles, occurs on the festival of Shavuot (also known as the Feast of Weeks). Shavuot commemorates Yahweh’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. The second account comes from the Gospel of John and describes the appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples “on the evening of the first day of the week” following his resurrection.

Both texts tell us the disciples were all together in one place. In the first account, the disciples stayed behind in Jerusalem just as they had been instructed to do after witnessing Jesus’ ascension [Acts 1:6-12]. In John’s Gospel, the disciples were hiding in fear for their lives after having witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion just a few days before [John 20:19-23]. We can presume in both instances the disciples were praying. However, in Acts, the appearance of the Holy Spirit is described metaphorically. For example, the disciples experience a noise like a driving wind that filled the house and, what appeared to the disciples to be tongues of fire parting and resting on every person. In John’s Gospel, there is no metaphor. Jesus simply appears. He stands in their midst and says, “Peace be with you,” and after showing them his wounds, Jesus breathes on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The symbols of noise, wind, fire and breath would not have escaped the attention of the disciples. Fire is a Judaic symbol for the Torah, the written law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Also, Rabbinical interpretation of the Moses event describes Yahweh’s voice as looking like a “fiery substance” which then split into seventy languages.[1] Further, a noise like a driving wind recalls the great theophany which announced Yahweh’s appearance to Moses [Exodus 19:16-19]. These shared symbols indicate similarities between the disciples’ Pentecost experience and the Moses event and point to the manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit in a new time and place.

Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in John’s gospel, although quieter, has the same powerful effect. Jesus breathes on them. And with his breath and accompanying words, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus renews, reassures, and empowers his disciples to go out in the world, to do what he had done, and to be what he had been. Even more significantly, he gives them new life in the Spirit. Now recall the second creation story in Genesis where God blows the breath of life (Ruah) into the nostrils of the man [Gen 2:7]. For the disciples, the community for whom Luke wrote, and all Christians, Jesus’ act of breathing mirrors the creation: He gives new life.

In both accounts, the disciples respond with joy and readiness. Acts describes the disciples’ realization they have both the ability and the wisdom to preach the Good News in a manner that transcends language barriers. They go out and “speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” [Acts 2:4]. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ gift of the Spirit sends the disciples, now empowered, out in the world to fulfill the mission for which he chose them. With this, the infant Church was born.

While I was reflecting on these readings, I began to think about spiritual maturity. The early days of faith formation are a kind of infancy during which seekers need to be fed, consoled, taught and reassured. The memory of breathing on my baby’s face led me to wonder what it would be like to have Jesus breathe on mine. I can say with confidence there would be no more tears!

Like those before us, the way in which we respond to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and our ongoing discipleship has everything to do with spiritual maturity. Are we willing to be sent out? Do we recognize the breath of the one who sends us?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Rabbi Moshe Weissman, author of “The Midrash Says”