O Root of Jesse, sign of peace, before whom all nations stand in awe; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before You. O come, and set us free; delay no longer in your love.
– Great Antiphon of Advent
Annually, my husband chops down our beautiful hydrangea—at least that is my view of his action! I pain with the loss of the gorgeous blossoms that brighten our house and my life. Each year I beg him to let them stay in the house to bloom throughout the winter. His response never changes with the seasons: “Pruning is good for the plants. If you want to have healthy flowers, you’ve got to cut them back. They may look like they are dead, but trust me, they aren’t!”
I know what he says is true. I have seen it happen year after year. Yet I still enter my seasonal mourning-and-trusting cycle. At the same time, I spot a reading from Isaiah. Its truth hits me more deeply than ever before. “On that day a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” To prune my beautiful hydrangea is to afford it the possibility of renewed life.
Aging blooms may not withstand the rigors of time and weather. Nor will there be stamina to produce new buds. Cutting the plant back is an acute reminder of the promise that a new day is coming, for it and for me. It helps me to understand that blossoms do not always indicate vigor. What appears to be a barren stump devoid of vitality is, in fact, simply enjoying a spirited rest. It is wintering with expectancy, not withering in expiration. The hydrangea is my Advent symbol of hope.
As it rests, so must I. Rather than relaxing contentedly with old blossoms which will eventually fade, die, and deny rebirth, I now rest in the spirit of God’s omnipresence. I allow myself to be pierced with the sharp shears of justice. All pretense is plucked away. My appearance is no longer a criterion for judgment, for I am more than I seem to be. Denuded, I am free to grow again.
The growth will happen. Of this, I am sure. However, it will take place only if I enter the desert of life and experience a spiritual wilderness. In the dry heat that desiccates, I will not die. I will be reformed. With little to distract my vision, I will begin to see more clearly. This time I see flowers in the wasteland.
Silently listening and alone with my God, I learn that it is possible for strange alliances to be real and good. It is possible for the wolf to be a guest of the lamb. It is possible for the leopard to lie down with the kid. It is possible for the calf and the young lion to browse together. Cows and bears can be neighbors. Babies can play by cobra dens and lay their hands on adders without harm to either. Nothing is impossible when we accept one another as Christ has accepted us. It may seem farfetched. It may seem to be a miracle beyond our achievement. Yet total acceptance is the wonder and work of Advent people.
Total acceptance requires a stint in the barren desert. It is an uncomfortable time of mixed emotions. I suspect most of us cringe with the challenge and doubt the effectiveness of daring to believe in God’s wonderwork. I know I feel as if I am on the edge of a surprise and I am not at all sure I am going to like it. I am standing at the end of the highest diving board and trembling. My concern centered in the acceptance of others demands a radical change in me. Moreover, it demands my radical acceptance of myself, my trembling self at the very edge of a high dive into God’s graciousness.
To live in the reign of God is to live in the advent of incarnation. It is to seek and see, enjoy and experience God alive in our midst. Seeking, we shall see. Seeing, we shall act. Acting, we shall be a light which brightens a darkened world. Enlightened, we will share a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and strength. We shall delight in the awesomeness of God’s presence. However, this shalom cannot be accomplished unless we accept each other as Emmanuel, God-With-Us. Dare I say, God-Within-Us.
No longer may we remain content and comfortable with a laissez-faire attitude, passively leaving each other alone in our status quo. Neither can we judge the poor with justice while continuing, at the same time, to demand that everyone always agree with us. We need to change our ways. We need to change our thoughts. We need to change our minds and our hearts. Greedily gobbling up the lion’s share of everything will not permit the lamb to accompany us. We will not be living and thriving in the land Alice Camille described as the “Peaceable Kingdom where conflict is absent and the strong no longer threaten the weak.”
When, however, we embrace and cultivate a fertile lifestyle of justice and faithfulness, peace rules. Where there is peace, the impossible becomes possible. The improbable happens. Shalom, holy wholeness, is restored. And “on that day a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.”
It is God’s power in us which effects that perfect harmony. God’s power evokes the melody of many voices blended into one sound. God’s power impels and compels, electrifies and challenges, forms and reforms us into a holy and wholesome family. This is the heart of Christianity. It is the core of community. It is the sign of Advent-urous People. It is the chant of a people who have entered the desert expecting emptiness only to be surprised by flowering life. As Advent People, we are “singing in the reign” of God—and it will be glorious. Who could ask for anything more?
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives (a trilogy of scriptural meditations), lead volunteer chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.