At the beginning of this school year, the Sisters received a leafy plant to brighten the convent. We named it Bartholomew. One Sister in particular took charge of him, and he thrived under her care. But, after about a month, something went wrong. Bartholomew’s leaves started to curl up; some turned brown around the edges. One day, we returned home from school to a sorry sight. Apparently, Sister had given up on Bartholomew: all that was left of him was a mass of two-inch stalks.
We could aptly have quoted Psalm 80 to her: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; / It took deep root and filled the land. / The mountains were covered by its shadow. / Why have you broken down its walls? / The boar from the forest strips the vine; / The beast of the field feeds upon it. / Turn back again, God of hosts; / Visit this vine, / the stock your right hand has planted.”
The vine the Psalmist describes is the people of Israel, especially embodied in David, the king “after God’s own heart,” whose royal line was to rule over Israel forever. When the kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., the last Davidic king was taken captive. His sons were slaughtered before his eyes, his city torched, the Temple looted and razed, and thousands massacred or enslaved. It seemed like the end had come for the vine of David.
But plants have a marvelous power of regeneration. On Dec. 8, Sister came bounding into the community room with Bartholomew’s forlorn remains. From among the brown stalks peeked two tiny green shoots!
Our King, born for us on Christmas Day, is described as a “shoot sprouting from the stump of Jesse” (Isa 11:1). Jesse was David’s father, and Christ, as the descendent of David, is the miraculous new growth of what had seemed, for half a millennium, utterly lifeless.
The shoot, the Babe in the manger, teach us two particular lessons. First, we are not in charge. New life, a tremendous gift for which we can take no credit, reminds us of this. Often, what causes us anxiety is a misplaced sense of, or desire for, control. Those who are freest in life are those who realize that it is God who is in charge. Knowing this, they can welcome each day, each moment, with overflowing gratitude.
Secondly, wonders start small. Did Mary’s neighbors know that her Son would reign one day from a cross, as King of Love, and that His kingdom would have no end? Did the shepherds realize? The Wise Men? Especially in our struggle to root out sin from our lives and cultivate virtue, we must remember that wonders start small. A good confession will likely not turn us into saints overnight, but slowly, slowly, the plant grows, the mustard seed becomes “the largest of all plants, and the birds of the air come and dwell in its branches” (Matt 13:32).
Long live Bartholomew!
Sr. Maria Vertias Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.