We Are Evergreen People
“The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.” –Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Or, as Stanley Hauerwas might put it, Christians are those people who have a story, conform their lives to the shape of that narrative, and who sustain hope in a world that rarely gives evidence that such hope is justified.
This brings us to the Advent Wreath – a custom that predates Christianity in northern Europe and adopted by the Church sometime after the middle ages, with the custom we now know as a ring, a circle or a wheel of evergreens decorated with candles perhaps originating in Germany in the 19th century.
The circle or wheel of life is a part of spiritual practices ranging from Buddhism in the Far East all the way to the native peoples of what would come to be called the Americas. This circle represents the circle of life and the eternal cycle of seasons, while the evergreens represent the persistence of life in the midst of the bareness of winter. The candles, of course, burn as symbols of light in a world which literally is getting darker and darker until the sun begins to return day by day beginning with the winter solstice.
Sometime around the 4th and 5th centuries Christians established the celebration of our savior’s birth to coincide with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a festival leading up to the increasing light of the solstice. December 25th was the conclusion of Saturnalia, and the Church hoped to attract non-Christians by celebrating The Feast of the Incarnation on that day. Customs like the wreath with candles and actually bringing an evergreen tree into the house eventually were adopted and given a Christian re-interpretation.
The greenness of the branches and the light of the candles have come to symbolize that Christians, like Christ, are to be those people who sustain the hope of life in the midst of death and light in the midst of darkness.
A story from the Cherokee people pre-dating European immigration to the Americas well illustrates the kind of people Jesus calls us to be. It is sometimes called, Why Some Trees Are Evergreen. John Shea, a priest from my native Chicago, tells it this way.
When the plants and the trees were first made the Great Mystery gave a gift to each species. But first he set up a contest to determine which gift would be most useful to whom.
“I want you to stay awake and keep watch over the earth for seven nights,” the Great Mystery told them.
The young trees and plants were so excited to be trusted with such an important job that the first night they would have found it difficult not to stay awake. However, the second night was not so easy, and just before dawn a few fell asleep. On the third night the trees and the plants whispered among themselves in the wind trying to keep from dropping off, but it was too much work for some of them. Even more fell asleep on the fourth night.
By the time the seventh night came the only trees and plants still awake were the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the fir, the holly and the laurel.
“What wonderful endurance you have!” exclaimed the Great Mystery. “You shall be given the gift of remaining green forever. You will be the guardians of the forest. Even in the seeming dead of winter your brother and sister creatures will find life protected in your branches.”
Ever since then all the other trees and plants lose their leaves and sleep all winter, while the evergreens stay awake.
This tale, concludes, Shea, talks about greenness in the midst of barrenness and associates this greenness with the ability to stay awake. “Staying awake” is standard code in spiritual literature. It means remaining aware of our life giving connection to divine reality even when inner and outer forces militate against it. Just as the light in the darkness reminds us of this truth, so does the green-leafed tree in the leafless forest.
When we light the candles of the Advent Wreath and gaze at the vigilant greenness of its branches, we are to remember who we are and whose we are. In a world that appears to be overrun with darkness, barrenness and death dealing, we are those people of God who stay awake and sustain the truths of light and life as ever present realities. When others are obsessed with fear and darkness we are to be those people who stay awake and sustain visions of hopefulness.
We are to be evergreen people for one another and for the world. The future, says Father Teilhard, belongs to those to give the next generation reason for hope! We are called to gaze upon the Advent Wreath and become the kind of people it has symbolized for thousands of years: a people of life, of light and of hope.