November 15: A Dresser of Fig Trees (33 B)

“Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.” Mark 13: 24-32.


My Italian grandfather was a dresser of fig trees. His name in Italian was Eliseo, the name of an Old Testament prophet.  (When translated “Elisha” means “God is my salvation.”)

By trade, my grandfather was a mason, his prime tool was his hands, and those heavy picks, shovels found in his work shed. He knew the precise mixture of concrete and how to make buildings, sidewalks, and patios. But most of all, he liked working in his small garden, in the backyard of his home in Newark, N.J. This was among the most urban places in this country, and so distant from southern Italy, and such as a contrast to the fertile farmland that he left when he was a young man.

There in his small plot of land, he cared for his prized fig trees. In the summer, the three trees would yield their sweet fruit, and become the centerpiece for desserts. By late October, and just after he and his paisans labored over that year’s barreling of their red wine, whose grapes had come by way of California, he had the added task of putting his fig trees to sleep for the winter. By carefully cutting back their leaves, and tying a rope around their branches, he placed each tree into an envelope of tar paper that would protect the trees from the harsh winter winds, and the snows that blanket the North East.

At the first signs of spring was that surprising moment, when the garden would come alive, and my grandfather would be there to the unfurl the fig trees and get ready for Easter, and all the new life around us.

“Learn a lesson from the fig tree,” we are told in today’s gospel. More than a warning, this text may be a comment on how to live through the thick and thin of life today, whether in season or not. To my understanding, it is the journey of Jesus Christ toward his goal, namely to bring salvation to the entire world despite the climatic and challenging conditions.

Clearly, in our own home, there was a mixture of family disputes, conflicts, and reunions. In the city of Newark, there were social and cultural upheavals of social progress and dismal political failures. World War II challenged this Italian-American community, sending sons to war and, in some cases, to the European theater and on Italian soil. There were economic crises like the Great Depression that fostered in my grandparents what economists today would call “radical underconsumption.” In other words, my grandfather knew how to enjoy the production of figs and wine, in contrast to the kind of consumer society that purchases these items in specialty stores.

In a sense, like a fig tree, we need to wrap ourselves in Christ and get ready for the seasons ahead, knowing both the challenges as well as at the time of love, joy, and growth ahead.

Yes, Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is within you and is around you and within your grasp. He assures us still that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

My grandfather passed away in the late summer of 1962. No one cared for the fig trees that year. And so the fig trees did not produce their fruit that summer.

We, too, must wrap ourselves in Christ, to order bring forth the fruit of our own service, and his grace for the world so much awaiting the salvation of our God.

As the prophet, Daniel tells us: “But the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”

Our Lady of Refuge, Castroville, CA.

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