Thirteen years ago, I spent several days in Arizona with my parents. The abrupt change from leading a cluster church conference on Sunday night as a district superintendent to the utter stillness of the desert on Monday afternoon brought deep renewal to my spirit. In the midst of the barrenness of the wilderness, I could see life everywhere: lizards, roadrunners, birds, insects, flowers, scrub brush, and cactuses. This sudden introduction to the wilderness reminded me of Mark’s proclamation:
Look, I am sending my messenger before you. He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.” (CEB)
So begins the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, according to Mark. The Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land by living in the wilderness for forty years. John the Baptist prepared the Hebrews for the coming of Jesus from the wilderness. Jesus himself prepared for his own ministry by retreating to the wilderness. For centuries, Christians have been called to begin Advent in the wilderness.
Why the wilderness? Why are we called to the desert in order to prepare properly for Christ’s coming? And what spiritual practices nurture us along the way to Bethlehem? Here is one reason for me. For many years now, the saguaro cactus has been a symbol for my Advent journey. This unique cactus is only found in the Sonoran Desert of extreme southeastern California, southern Arizona, and adjoining northwestern Mexico.
Saguaros are tall, stately, solitary cactuses that rise majestically above the desert floor. Some saguaros live for two hundred years, reach a height of fifty feet, and weigh eight tons, making them the largest cactuses in the United States. Saguaros grow very slowly, about an inch a year, but that growth occurs in spurts, most of it taking place in the summer rainy season.
Just as Christmas only arrives after the four-week waiting period of Advent, in the same way, spiritual maturity does not come quickly. It develops over a lifetime of patient faithfulness and learning, especially in the midst of desert dryness, suffering, and emptiness. At the same time, the cultivation of spiritual disciplines during Advent can occasion a growth spurt in our walk with Christ.
- How are you intentionally preparing your heart for Christmas through acts of piety and discipline such as devotional reading, music, fasting, worship, time spent in retreat, generous giving, journaling, and even yoga?
Many saguaros have arms, the average number being five. However, arms don’t appear until a saguaro reaches sixty-five years of age. The arms grow primarily for balance, to ensure that these tall heavy cactuses don’t fall over as they age.
Certainly, it is just a coincidence that arms develop in a saguaro about the same age as many human beings retire from their jobs. Yet, what do we have to learn from our elders about balance in life? And how are we called to encourage others to tend to their spiritual life? I am reminded that a saguaro’s arms usually point straight to heaven. Advent is a time for rebalancing ourselves, for looking upward to God as well as inward in piety and outward in mission, and for reconnecting with God’s unimaginable gift to us in the Christ child.
- How will you bring balance to your life this Advent?
Life in the desert is a struggle for the saguaro from its very beginning as a shiny black seed no bigger than a pinhead. Out of tens of thousands of seeds produced every year by one saguaro, only a few will survive to adulthood. Those seeds that do grow are usually sheltered by a nurse tree such as the palo verde or mesquite. These trees protect young saguaros from the intense sun, winter cold, and hungry rodents and birds. In the same way, we are reminded during Advent that the baby Jesus was nurtured by the water of Mary’s womb so that the Word could become flesh and dwell among us.
Mature saguaros return the favor shown to them when they were young by providing protection for woodpeckers and other birds who make holes in the woody ribs of the plant. Saguaros can hold up to twenty gallons of water after a good rain and provide water for thirsty creatures.
- How are you called to nurture, shelter, and care for all of God’s children in this Advent season through specific acts of mercy?
Unfortunately for saguaros, the most visible symbol of the southwest is a popular target for thieves for use in landscaping. Currently, a six to seven-foot saguaro sells for $500 to $700. Stealing saguaros is illegal in Arizona, and the National Park Service has had to resort to high-tech measures to stop rampant theft. In Saguaro National Park, rangers have been implanting microchip IDs in hundreds of saguaros by the sides of roads to prevent them from being poached.
Today we live in an age of anxiety when many people feel that peace, security, and stability have been stolen from them. The time is ripe for people of faith to boldly proclaim that in the midst of fear, uncertainty, and mistrust, God is good, and no one will ever be able to steal our joy in Christ.
- How will your Advent worship services invite people into an encounter with Emmanuel, the God who is with us and whose microchip of grace is implanted in all of our hearts?
There’s one last thing about saguaros. Wherever they are located, saguaros bend toward the sun and grow toward the light.
The saguaro: wise one of the wilderness
Always vulnerable, yet forever steady
Needing protection, yet giving back when strong
Attuned to the dance of balance
Growing toward the light, arms lifted up and out
Awake, alert, attentive, joyful.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. How will the power of your presence and love point the way toward that light this Advent?