“Behold the Fig Tree” Bishop-in-Residence Kirk Smith ‘79
Kirk Smith ’79 is Berkeley’s bishop-in-residence for the spring term 2021, succeeding Steven Charleston, who has been worked with Berkeley students during Fall 2020. “In residence” is a bit of a misnomer in the sense that Smith visits each week via Zoom from his home in Sedona, Arizona, but the sense of homecoming is still pretty strong for the Berkeley Class of ’79 graduate. “I look forward to returning to a place I love, teaching people I love, about a subject I love,” Smith observes. In this case, the subject is the medieval church. After graduating from Lewis and Clark College, Smith earned his PhD in medieval history from Cornell. After divinity school at YDS/Berkeley, he served parishes in Connecticut and Los Angeles before being elected Bishop of Arizona in 2003. He retired in 2019. Smith hopes to come to New Haven for true in-residence life this spring, one more draw being family legacy: both of his parents were YDS graduates
In the third week of Advent 2020, Bishop Smith delivered following homily, his text coming from Mark 13:28.
Behold the Fig Tree
Jesus’s followers knew a lot about figs. That Jesus should have picked the fig tree as an image of the coming kingdom of God would have made perfect sense to them.
Fig trees (ficus in Latin, suce in Greek) are the most ancient cultivated plants in the world. They produced a fruit that when harvested could be dried and kept for months and was important to their very survival. Ancient people knew about figs, and the long process it took to grow them. Today we today know only about Fig Newtons. In our culture where instant gratification is the goal of most of our endeavors, where we use Instagram to share what we have whipped up in our Instant Pots, we have turned an agricultural staple into a candy filling for cookies.
I would suggest that the fig tree, which Jesus talks about in the Gospel, might be reconsidered as a good symbol for the Advent season. For this is that time of the year when we do our best to reduce a difficult and often painful process of spiritual preparation into a quick and easy religious product.
Last week Dean George held up her Advent calendar. I jokingly asked if it was filled with chocolates. Maybe I was thinking of a friend of mine who posted that he was shocked that Christmas was only three days away–according to the chocolates left in his Trader Joes advent calendar! No one can blame us if we want to sweeten the days of Advent. But if we did, we would miss entirely the point of this unpleasant but necessary time. Sure, we would all like to skip ahead to Christmas and forget all about this gloom and doom language of Advent, this high season of eschatology, but we can’t have fruit without cultivation, birth without gestation, new life without, on some level, death.
This paradox makes Advent especially difficult for clergy and seminarians. While your congregations are (or were before COVID) in the midst of party time, doing their best to ring in the happy holidays, we, with our lectionaries in hand, are preaching just the opposite, doing our best to insist on apocalyptic messages while futilely trying to make sure no one jumps the liturgical gun and puts up their Christmas tree on Thanksgiving or hangs greens in the church before Christmas Eve.
It’s this disconnect that makes Advent the most schizoid time of the church calendar. While our parishioners dream of presents and sugar plums, we as their leaders exhort them to self-denial and restraint. While they are baking up a storm, we advocate a Lenten-like fasting or at least feeding the poor. While we talk about the blessed birth of the Christ Child, they are far more aware of those who through separation or death won’t be with them at the Christmas dinner table. Advent is just another time when the church seems completely out of step with the emotional needs of those in its pews
But when we look to Jesus’ words in the Gospel we are pointed in a better way. It’s perhaps no surprise that Jesus uses metaphors familiar to farmers. His parables and stories are full of growing, organic things–wheat, mustard seeds, fermenting wine. He makes it clear that the Kingdom of God is an organic thing. It is coming—that is absolutely sure, says Isaiah. In fact, if we look carefully we can already see new green shoots, the signs of the times. But that coming takes time to grow. Like any growing thing this process is often painful–no pain, no gain as the folks at the gym will tell us. And like any growth process it also requires patience. Patience is a favorite word in the Bible, in Greek “hypomene”; it occurs 70 times, and as my classicist friends tell me, patience in Latin comes from “passio,” to suffer. In Greek “hypomene” has the sense of being ground down– caught between a rock and hard place. It can also have a military flavor–as in stand your ground and don’t retreat. All this talk of patience, of preparation and of process makes little sense for those of us living in an age of instant gratification.
Practicing this Advent attitude of patience has implications for us who are church leaders. In a homily we heard last week the preacher said, “We hear a lot about the death of the church. I sometimes wish that the church would just die and get it over with, so we could get on with it.” In your pastoral care of your elderly parishioners, you will hear much the same sentiment, if you haven’t already. “I am so old and sick and good for nothing, why doesn’t God just take me now.” I hope that you will reassure them that all life, even its decline, has meaning and affords potential to grow closer to God, not just the times when we are happy and healthy. I remember when Pope John Paul II was dying of Parkinson’s Disease and his advisors urged him to step down. “No,” he said, “it is important that the people see me weak as well as strong; illness and weakness is part our God-given life, too.” There is something mysterious and necessary about the suffering we experience now. We are shaped by our “passio,” we are formed from long suffering. Yes, we all wish that COVID would be over tomorrow, but perhaps we still have more to learn about ourselves and about the kind of life together that God calls us to. Yes, we all wish the institutional church would stop hemorrhaging membership, but maybe we haven’t yet realized what that new church is going to look like and our place in it.
Some years ago, my I noticed that my Senior Warden, in what was for him a rare display of devotion, showed up for every church service we had from Advent 1 until Christmas, and that included such lightly attended gatherings like the Wednesday evening Taize service, and the Friday 7 a.m. Eucharist. On Christmas Eve, he took me aside as he was leaving the midnight service, and he said, “I just want you to realize that Christmas has meant more to me this year than ever before, and that’s because I made it a point to pay attention to Advent. It was hard coming to all those services and doing Bible study early in the morning for the last four weeks, but it was worth it. I took the time to prepare, and now, for the first time in my life, I get it.”
So there’s nothing wrong with chocolate Advent calendars, but maybe one containing figs would be even better. Fig trees take a while to grow, they require, planting, pruning and patience, but once they are harvested and dried, they last forever. And they’re delicious.