In today’s gospel Jesus ironically juxtaposes the calamities of the end times with the lesson of the fig tree that sends forth new leaves in the spring. We’re told that the seemingly dead branches of violence and desolation portend God’s coming. We don’t know when the end will take place, but we do know that, despite the suffering and injustice in the world, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
In the backyard of the rectory stood a camellia bush about four feet tall. When showing off its profusion of soft red flowers, it was the pride of the garden. Not long ago, we awoke to find it lying on the ground. To our dismay, in the night a gopher had eaten its roots.
However, next to this now-dead camellia stands a magnificent oak tree, eight-and-one-half feet in circumference. My guess is that it was already a thriving, mature tree when All Saints’ was founded over 100 years ago. The scar of a branch trimmed long ago measures three feet in diameter, which makes one wonder about the root system of such a tree. Are there roots three or four feet around? How many roots are there? How deep must they penetrate to hold the weight of this mighty tree?
“From the fig tree learn its lesson,” Jesus tells us. In the midst of “wars and rumors of wars,” in the calamity of beheadings, from John the Baptist to journalists today, we see trees sending forth new leaves each spring. Despite racism’s legacy of unrest in Ferguson, roots reach deep down into the earth to anchor and nourish towering trees. In a season when hope seems to be dormant, or maybe when it feels like God is unable to save, we are invited to be rooted in God’s love and to send forth new leaves.
Advent brings God’s invitation to nurture, grow, and deepen the roots that keep us attached to the earth and grounded in community. We proclaim that the risen Jesus Christ stands in the center of life and culture, not just at the boundaries of our experience, and not only at birth, death, or mountaintop moments.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer exemplified hope and gratitude in the midst of a world that seemed to be falling apart. His practical Advent advice for growing roots is found in his personal resolution. He once wrote that the most important thing was to live in the present moment with as much beauty, concentration, and inner stillness as he could sustain. I find the qualities of beauty, concentration, and inner stillness to be most salutary. These nutrients strengthen my personal roots, and can help us all prepare for Christ’s arrival at the place on which we stand in our daily lives.
To live in the moment with as much beauty, concentration, and inner stillness as we can sustain is the lesson of the fig tree. Take time to appreciate beauty. This is such a Carmel mandate! Walk on the beach. Use the art galleries as museums—the merchants will appreciate the traffic. Bathe your face in the refreshing rain. Listen to beautiful music. Take your own healthy saint hike in Big Sur or elsewhere. Wherever you are and whatever you do, appreciate beauty.
Concentration is the most intriguing of the three disciplines Bonhoeffer chose for himself. My first reaction was to wish he had selected attentiveness instead, but concentration is a great attribute to cultivate. I find that the distractions of busyness and the distortions of anxiety draw me away from God’s love, while concentrating on God’s presence grounds me in the Gospel. I sometimes use the simple prayer, “Where are you at this moment, dear God?” Concentrate. Simplify. Listen. Wait.
Inner stillness comes through prayer, especially silent prayer, where words give way to the mystery of God. Such inner stillness sends down strong roots of communion and deep peace. Indeed, being still and knowing the great I Am is life-giving. To help us cultivate inner stillness, we will observe silence during communion this Advent.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson.” Outside this window is our own fig tree, whose branches shade the lower courtyard and whose roots penetrate deeply into the ground. This year in particular, the tree put forth many figs. The harvest was plentiful, because the Lord of the harvest is faithful and true.
 Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Charles Marsh, page 298
The Rev. Rick Matters
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Carmel