“I set the Lord ever before me…You show me the path to life – the fullness of joys in your presence, the delights of your right hand forever.” Psalm 16: 5, 9-11.
When we read in scripture warning signs, such as falling stars, or times of tribulation, we need further assurance since God’s love remains constant even in the thick and thin of life.
My mentor and former scripture teacher, Msgr. Jim Turro once wrote: “Even in the bleak and trying moments of our existence, God’s love is alive and beaming. It is like a star: in the bright sunlight, though invisible, it is nonetheless there; in turbulent weather, cloudiness, and fog, and it remains fixed and firm and shining.”
Today’s passage from Saint Mark, coming as it does at the very end of the year, might not be a warning about the end of the world, instead of a comment about living through unsettled times. So our adherence to Jesus Christ must remain constant despite the change in seasons, the fickle nature of popularity polls, or a loss of direction.
Even in such times, Jesus holds out a bold promise when he says: “Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.”
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.”)
My grandfather was a mason by trade. 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. Our hometown was among the most urban places in this country, and so distant from southern Italy, contrasting the fertile farmland he left when he was a young man.
There in his small plot of land, he cared for his prized fig trees. The three trees would yield their sweet fruit in the summer 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 when the garden would come alive, my grandfather would be there to 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. A warning, perhaps? This text may comment on how to live through the pain and disappointments 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 world despite the climatic and challenging conditions.
There was a mixture of family disputes, conflicts, and reunions in our own home. 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. Economic crises like the Great Depression 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.
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 died 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 and bring forth our work and service and embrace this world so much awaiting the salvation of our God.
As the prophet, Daniel tells us: “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.”
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.