Rev Dr Adam Scott
One of my favourite carols as a child was ‘the Holly and the Ivy’. I can vividly remember singing it at church, the nave decorated for Christmas, the gloom of winter outside and soft glow of candles and the feeling of community inside. I loved the upbeat tune and chorus:
The rising of the sun /And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, / Sweet singing in the choir.
I am not sure how well-known this carol is as I have not sung it in church since childhood and it is not in Rejoice and Sing, which is why I must have forgotten about it for many years. It was Cara Dillon, the folk singer, who reminded me of it, as she sings it on one of her Christmas albums. When I heard her singing it, I was filled with childhood memories and joined in with the chorus, but I realised that I didn’t know the words of the verses and learning them has made me love the carol even more. Here are the first two verses:
The holly and the ivy, When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, The holly bears the crown.
The rising of the sun And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, Sweet singing in the choir.
The holly bears a blossom, As white as the lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ, To be our sweet Saviour.
One of the reasons it might not be in Rejoice and Sing is the carol is an old British folk song that would have been sung in pubs and door to door around during Advent and Christmas.
In essence the carol is a meditation on two common plants, the Holly representing Jesus and the Ivy representing his mother Mary. The carol draws attention to the holly’s red berries, thorns and bitter bark signifying Jesus’ suffering a death on a cross; the holly’s crown being Jesus’s crown of thorns and also his crown of glory. The white, sweet smelling flowers of the ivy, like the purity and beauty of Mary and hope of Jesus’ birth.
In our reading today Jesus asks us to meditate on another tree: Jesus said: ‘Let the fig tree teach you a lesson. When its branches become green and tender and it starts putting out leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you will know that the time is near, ready to begin …’
Fig trees in Jesus’ time often symbolised the Hebrew people, which are God’s chosen people and the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But, I am not sure Jesus is drawing attention to this symbolism in our reading. The fact that we can tell the seasons are changing from looking at the fig tree is what he wants us to notice. Just as a holly brush comes into its own in Autumn and Winter, bearing bright red berries and glossy leaves, so the fig tree does so in Summer.
Advent is a time when we are reminded that Jesus came to earth as a child and will return as the One who will renew everything. The word Advent comes from a Latin word meaning arrival, that is why over Advent we read the words of the prophets that speak of God’s coming Kingdom. A Kingdom that will transform everything, not just people, but the whole of Creation.
Our readings today may leave us feeling a little uncomfortable, frightened even. Mark records Jesus as saying:
In the days after that time of trouble the sun will grow dark, the moon will no longer shine, the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in space will be driven from their courses. Then the Son of Man will appear, coming in the clouds with great power and glory. He will send the angels out to the four corners of the earth to gather God’s chosen people from one end of the world to the other.
The trouble the reading speaks of is most probably the destruction of the temple by Emperor Hadrian’s soldiers. The images in this passage are whole of Creation being thrown into disarray. The very stars in the sky falling. We could say it is a complete shake up of everything. This is distressing and suggests that Jesus second coming will involve a complete change. But, remember Jesus is bringing the change. He is gathering all God’s children, which to mind will include everyone, not just the ‘good Christian boys and girls’! So, Jesus will judge the whole of Creation, but judge us with compassion, understanding and transformatory love. As the carol says:
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ / For to redeem us all.
We need to remember that Jesus came and will come again to redeem everything, not to take revenge, or commit senseless violence. We are safe with Jesus. God is seeking to transform everything, which will require change and change can be challenging and painful at times, and we are encouraged to be alert and watchful for his second coming and this great change:
No one knows, however, when that day or hour will come—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; only the Father knows. Be on watch, be alert, for you do not know when the time will come.
In the past the warning of hell has often been used to say ‘keep watchful or God will get you!’ But, I think something else is being said here – ‘stay alert to the signs of God Kingdom … because confusingly theologians tell us God’s Kingdom has come and is coming!
What are these signs we should look out for? The Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr says:
‘The Kingdom of God is about union and communion, mercy, forgiveness, nonviolence, letting go, solidarity, service, and lives of love, patience and simplicity’
The traditional reading of these passages is that Jesus is saying watch for things getting worse because once it has all gone to pot then Jesus is coming. But, I think we should be looking for the things Richard Rohr suggests as signs of the Kingdom – ‘union and communion, mercy, forgiveness, nonviolence, letting go, solidarity, service, and lives of love, patience and simplicity’.
How can we be alert this Advent? By attending to God in prayer, song, community, service to others, and by meditating on the humble holly bush and ivy plant, because every time I see holly bush I am reminded of my favourite carol, which in turn reminds me of the great sacrificial love of Jesus that can transform, even a sinner like me …
The holly bears a berry, /As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ / For to do us sinners good.
The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.