Recently I was moved by certain events to meditate about towers. The world was shocked when planes were flown by Islamic terrorists into the towers of the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon. A few years later, on the anniversary of those attacks, a bolt of lighting caused a construction crane to collapse on a mosque in Saudi Arabia killing many. By a strange coincidence that crane belonged to the Bin Laden Construction Company, owned by the family of the man who inspired and planned the attacks in New York and Washington, some fourteen years before. Not long after that horrible accident, during the celebrations of the New Year in Dubai, a very tall tower (the Downtown Address Hotel) caught on fire and burned spectacularly for hours, in a ghastly competition with the ongoing fireworks show, one of the largest on earth.
To me that looked like a sign, something that the whole planet got to watch on their television screens just like the images of the Carnival Lines’ ship Costa Concordia listing by the shores of Giglio Island in Tuscany on January 13, 2012. In my very personal opinion, all those events seem to have a meaning but whether they have a meaning or not, their importance and public exposure should move us to reflect. That last article, Towers was my quick, almost stream-of-consciousness reaction to the events in Dubai. In the days that followed I continued thinking about them. What follows is a meditation that was triggered by all the events mentioned earlier. Forgive me if it is a bit longer than usual.
Back to the Garden of Eden
Reading the Holy Scriptures often reveals certain patterns. By reading what wiser men of the past have said about Scripture we discover deeper and deeper layers of meaning. Something that happens a lot in Scripture is what I call ‘counterpoints.’ One example of a counterpoint would be Eve, who listened to a bad angel and introduced death in the world; opposite to Mary of Nazareth who listened to a holy angel and later gave birth to the Savior of the world.
Going back to the story of the temptation of Eve we notice that the devil cunningly made Eve desire the “knowledge of good and evil” which God had declared out of boundaries for mankind. Eve was tempted into envying God’s knowledge when the devil presented it as something good that God was denying to His children. Rushing into a forbidden action, Eve did not think for a moment that perhaps she was not ready for that knowledge. She neglected to consider God’s goodness that would not deny her any of the beautiful and enjoyable things in His garden. She never considered that perhaps she had to grow a bit more before she was allowed to eat from that now forbidden fruit. Desire turned into envy. Envy is sometimes a form of impatience.
Eve did not wait or worked to grow into God’s purpose for her but rushed to grasp the object of her desire. That simple act was the birth of all sin. In a way every sin ever committed is an act of irrational impatience born of some kind of disordered desire.
The result of that disobedience was soon to hit Adam and Eve. They lost the Garden of Eden and became the parents of an accursed race. Although God was the offended party He did not give up on them, or on His plans for Earth and mankind. Things would have to follow a different path. Over time God would restore order on earth, defeating the devil by bringing up a new Adam and a new Eve. The rescuers would be a mirror image of the first humans. Eve was born from Adam but the New Adam; the Christ would have to be born from a woman, Mary of Nazareth.
At this point you may ask: what does this have to do with plants or towers? We are getting there, please bear with me.
The shoot from the stump of Jesse
In the book of the prophet Isaiah (11:1-2) there are two verses introducing one of the best known messianic prophecies:
There shall come forth a shoot [tzemach] from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
Jesse is the father of King David. We know that the promised Messiah had to come from the royal house of Israel; he had to be a descendant of David.
The word for plant in Hebrew is tzemach. The term for ‘growing like a plant’ is litzmoach. I do not know of any exact equivalent to the word litzmoach outside the Hebrew language so think of it as “growing like a plant.”
We are used to the idea of the name of Christ being a shield, or protection against evil. Most of us think of it as an invocation that will immediately summon the forces of righteousness to our side. That is correct but this other ‘name’ of the Messiah will teach us how that protection actually works, allowing us to grow strong in faith and protecting us from all danger. The core part of that protection is patience that grows out of faith. Think of Abraham and Sarah who were promised to engender a great nation and at the advanced age of one hundred, they did not have one child of their own. Think of Jacob who had to rest his head on a stone at Beth-el because he did not have any other possession but his staff. Think also of Jacob’s son, Joseph who was sold as a slave to the Egyptians and had to suffer for years until he miraculously became the most powerful servant of Pharaoh. Remember Moses, forced into exile for so many years in Midian, getting older while his people lingered under Egyptian oppression.
The Bible is filled with stories about righteous servants of God who suffered for long periods of time and had to grow spiritually under unimaginable adverse conditions. One can almost say without fear of error, that God puts all righteous people through the mill without exception. None of His servants ever had it easy, not even Jesus.
Learn to grow and wait
One well known Jewish prayer says:
“Therefore, swiftly cause the offshoot [tzemach] of your servant David to flower [litzmoach] and raise up its might through your salvation.”
We are also waiting for the tzemach [plant, offshoot] of King David to come and change the world. Remember that names in the Bible reflect the essential quality and mission of the bearer. In this case the Messiah is a plant or offshoot.
The theme of the “righteous branch” happens again in Jeremiah 33:14-16;
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous offshoot to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
The same resurfaces in Zechariah 6:12-13;
“And say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Behold, the man whose name is the Offshoot: for he shall grow out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord. It is he who shall build the temple of the Lord and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne. And there shall be a priest on his throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.’”
So from Scripture we know that the Messiah is coming to renew the Earth, to help us make it a place where God can dwell. In this coming world the inclination to evil, the original envy of Adam and Eve will no longer be found. Just as our present world is a world of evil, darkness, and death; the world to come is a world of righteousness, light, and life. The Messiah will teach the world how to live in righteousness to correct the original evil impulse of the devil who taught mankind to live in darkness.
Unless the seed falls …
So why call the Messiah a “plant” or “offshoot”? I think the name is calling us to pay attention to the way plants grow. Everything starts with a seed. We know that the seed contains the plan and basic materials for the future plant. First the seed has to be planted, then watered, until the husk starts to decompose so the life inside can begin to bring in all the necessary materials from the soil around it. That is what the process of life is all about and that is also a perfect metaphor of Christ’s life. He came to us and after giving us the Gospel of Life he “fell to the earth” and from His resurrected body the Church began to grow:
“He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’” (Matthew 13:31-32)
In the Gospel of John, Jesus addresses some foreigners who come to see Him. Hidden in this passage is the future world-wide mission of the Church which Jesus mysteriously connects with the parable of the seed:
Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:20-26)
It seems to me that the “honor” that the Father bestows on the servants of Jesus is the Cross. Jesus is glorified through the Cross, then hidden in the depths of the earth, and then gloriously resurrected. His saints must follow the same pattern: no pain, no gain; no cross, no glory. The Psalm 1:1-3 also shows the righteous man as a tree:
“Blessed is the man,
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the Law of the Lord,
and on His Law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.”
Later at the end of the process of Redemption, St. John in Revelation 22:1-4 sees a life-giving tree also:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.”
The elements appear again here: righteousness, light, and life. The leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations, to reverse the curse of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
That era of unending peace is the final result, still in the future for us. To get there we must follow Jesus and be “seeds” like Him. We must allow the forces of this world to tear our outer husk so we can “give much fruit.” That is the purpose of the many tribulations we must endure like Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and all the righteous servants of God who gave good fruit and made the great tree of the Kingdom of God grow in the world and in their own souls. Luke 17: 201-21.
Faith, patience, good will
Earlier on we talked of Eve’s desire that became impatience and envy. It is time to present the counterpoint. Of course the perfect counterpoint is Mary of Nazareth. While Eve was tempted into envying the happiness of God, Mary was led to desire for herself all the sufferings of the Crucified. Mary also had to live a life of uncertainty, poverty, and afflictions. In doing so she provides the perfect example to all the saints to come, who consider an honor to suffer like Christ, who often deny themselves the comforts of this world so they can advance the cause of Christ by perfecting their souls in patience and suffering. The patience of Mary opposes the impatience of Eve; the patience of the saints opposes the impatience of sinners. That titanic effort is part of God’s work to restore the Earth, to redeem mankind, to bring the Universe to order and faithful obedience.
When we are faced with what seems impossible to bear, like Abraham at age one-hundred, still waiting for the promised son; we must remember that we have to grow like him, slowly over long periods of suffering to bear the perfect fruit. That is litzmach to grow like a plant, slowly imperceptibly and yet with the unstoppable force of life.
Towers of pride
The counterpart of ‘growing like a plant’ is … not to have faith. How do we explain this?
We said previously that Eve rushed to take the forbidden fruit. Her faith, her trust in God failed. If she had been patient, if she had trusted God then the story would have been different. Her descendants kept making the same mistake to this day but one remarkable event happened after the Flood.
“There was a time when the entire earth spoke a common language with an identical vocabulary. As people migrated westward, they came across a plain in the region of Shinar and settled there. They told each other, “Come on! Let’s burn bricks thoroughly.” They used bricks for stone and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come on! Let’s build ourselves a city and a tower, with its summit in the heavens, and let’s make a name for ourselves so we won’t be scattered over the surface of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:1-4)
Notice that the purpose of the tower was opposite to the blessing and commandment given earlier to all the descendants of Noah:
“God blessed Noah and his sons and ordered them, “Be productive, multiply, and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1)
That commandment was identical to the first commandment given to mankind:
“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it …” (Genesis 1:28)
Again, men distrusted God deciding to stick together “just in case” there was another flood, building a nice tall tower for good measure. It did not work as planned and the ensuing confusion caused them to scatter all over the Earth fulfilling the purpose of God anyway but losing the benefit of a good relationship with the Creator.
The tower of Babel is a good counterpoint to ‘growing like a plant.’ For the men of Shinar the tower was a collective effort to oppose God’s purpose. In our lifetime we have seen similar efforts. For example, Communism not only denies the existence of God but even proposes to build a “worker’s paradise.” Other systems like Capitalism liberated from the constraints of a Christian conscience, seek to create a world of material prosperity centered on a hedonistic view of life. Both points of view propose a world without God.
It takes time
The teaching of ‘growing like a plant’ is essential to the Christian disciple. It is a remarkable fact in nature that weeds grow fast and beneficial plants grow slow. Yet not every good plant grows at the same pace. Some trees grow slowly over centuries, others grow big in a matter of years or even months.
If we think of ourselves as seedlings that need a long time to grow to maturity, if we patiently wait until God finishes His work on us; we will be able to live more content, more productive lives, giving our fruit in season, serving Our Master well.
It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already become perfect. But I keep pursuing it, hoping somehow to embrace it just as I have been embraced by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have embraced it yet. But this one thing I do: Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I keep pursuing the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)