Well, I had a lovely break in Alicante with some priest friends. Plenty of sunshine and good food, although in the shade it could be chilly! Alicante has a lot of history and much of it is centred around St. Barbara’s castle and fortress, parts of which go back to pre-Christian times. The city today flourishes because of tourism, so we heard lots of languages and accents as we walked around.
A thing I especially liked were the various parks dotted across the city. As well as many kinds of palm trees, I was particularly struck by the very imposing figure of the Australian fig tree. Its roots looked especially thick; the trunk, rather than being one single piece, seemed to be made up of a number of intertwining pieces, almost as if they were roots growing up the way. One specimen of the tree was particularly impressive, in the Plaza Ruperto Chapi. I stopped and gazed at its proportions and strength, wondering how something so spectacular could come from a seed.
Any seed first puts out its roots. The tiny plant of the tree is fed by the nutrients inside the seed; once that’s finished, and the shell of the seed falls away, the roots of the plant draw nourishment from the soil. Then the sun, the air and water do the rest. It takes time, of course. By the look of the Australian fig tree I saw, it has been around for many decades.
The prophet Jeremiah talks today about a tree whose roots are planted in soil by the flowing river. He uses it as an image for the person who has placed his trust is in God. The waters from the river are the life and grace which provide nutritious soil for a person to grow strong, to flourish, to bear fruit and to endure without fear either of the heat of temptation or of the drought of suffering. You might say that real trust in God makes us evergreen, or able to endure for eternity. Trust him now, and you will live with him for ever.
This link between now and then is what is also in the mind of Jesus in today’s Gospel. He speaks of those who suffer now for his sake: they shall be comforted, rewarded, blessed. Likewise, he talks of those who only seek satisfaction now and the woeful consequences of that. They will mourn and weep when eternity dawns. Jesus uses this comparison or even tension between the now and the then to face us with a basic truth. Namely, that the end game of our lives is not what is immediate, here and now; rather, it is what is eternal. He makes himself the measuring stick of what true happiness and true sorrow mean. He therefore makes himself the true measuring stick of both the now and the then. It consists of the challenge to live not for ourselves, to be preoccupied not about ourselves, but about him, about his will, his truth, his desires for me, for my life, my loves, my joys and my sufferings.
Going back to Jeremiah’s tree, if we place our roots in Christ, we will blossom in Christ and into Christ. If we put Christ before ourselves, then the potential within us, as within a seed, will grow and flourish to the full. Rooted in Jesus, the continuity between now and then will not be interrupted but will flow and flourish in eternal blessedness.
St. Paul actually calls our human bodies a seed, in another part of his first letter to the Corinthians from which we read today. He says that, in death, we die like the external crust of a seed only so that, if we have believed and lived for Christ, we will rise up to share in his glory, like another huge tree in the Lord’s forest, or fruitful branch on the Vine. St. Paul can’t believe that there are people in Corinth who are denying the resurrection. He spells it out for us by saying that, if Christ is not risen, then our faith and hope are in vain. Then he adds very powerfully: if our hope in Christ was for this life only, we are the most unfortunate of people. Denying the resurrection is not just a matter of words, of saying “I deny the Resurrection.” We deny the resurrection, too, if we live our lives now heedless of the afterlife. Disconnecting the link between our life now and our life then is like saying there’s no connection between the seed and the tree. We can deny the resurrection by the way we live as much as by saying we don’t believe it.
Practical belief in the Resurrection is shown in a life of poverty of spirit, that is, of real and concrete dependence on Jesus in the midst of everything. You could say that poverty of spirit is another way of entrusting your very self to Jesus. It means factoring Christ into your daily life as companion, friend, lover and Lord. It means taking the important decisions about your life by bringing them to him, asking him to show you what he wants for you and to give you the strength and courage to choose it. The Lord wants us to abide in him. The deep sources of our heart and soul, and even of our very guts, need Christ if they are to flourish for eternity. St. Paul in his own personal life grasped this profoundly when he said, “It is now not I that live, but Christ lives in me.” On our own, we become like the branch that withers or the seed that remains sterile.
How we map out our lives now will determine their future destiny. This is especially true when it comes to taking important decisions in our lives. St. Ignatius of Loyola, in giving advice on how to take the best decision about something, advises his retreatants to imagine themselves before the throne of God the day they die. He directs them to take now whatever decision they would then wish to have taken before God. He is simply echoing Jesus: happy are you if in view of living eternally with me you do now as I would have done, you love now as I would have loved, you now suffer as I would have suffered. True Christian hope in eternal life means living with Jesus now, living as Jesus now. As Jesus himself would put it: happy is the person who makes that choice; alas, if he does not