“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Words of Jesus, in the Gospel According to Saint Luke 12:49)
I received a message today via email reporting that certain coconut tree in Santa Montaña (Caguas, Puerto Rico) fell during hurricane Maria. We were told that Our Lady of Mount Carmel planted that tree before departing from Puerto Rico in 1909. She prophesied that the tree was to last almost until the end of times. The tree would serve as a sign of the times to the faithful. Those apparitions in rural Puerto Rico are still waiting for an official investigation and confirmation in spite of having been approved once by the local Bishop, Enrique Hernández Rivera. To read more about that particular apparition of Our Lady, see the article by Vionette Negretti: Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Puerto Rico.
Receiving that mail on the day of the disastrous fire of Notre Dame de Paris was quite a coincidence. It remind me of another Temple and another tree … long ago.
Jesus at the Temple
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Matthew 12:12-13 NRSVACE)
Jesus Curses a Fig Tree
Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. (Matthew 12:18-19 NRSVACE)
These two images (the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig tree) came to my mind when the news of the destruction of Notre Dame and the demise of the Santa Montaña coconut tree appeared together on my computer screen.
I do not think the coincidence is miraculous but we can use it to learn something useful. Both figures in Matthew’s Gospel refer to the same thing: the impending judgment of the unfaithful religious leaders. Coincidentally, the cleansing of the Temple takes place on Holy Monday while the cursing of the tree occurs the following day. You know it already, I am not making this up.
Back then in Jesus’ time, the religious leaders feared the political establishment more than they feared God. In passing, Saint John reveals that those who have visited Mary were more inclined to believe in Jesus.
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (John 11:45-48)
Often in history, people work hard to avoid something they fear only to end up bringing upon them that very thing they dreaded in the first place. The Sanhedrin managed to apparently get rid of Jesus in 33 A.D. only to lose the Temple and the nation to the Romans in 70 A.D. exactly 40 years after the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
Often the righteous are compared to fruitful trees in Holy Scripture. Read Psalm 1:1-6 …
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
The cursing of the tree that Tuesday morning long ago was a symbolic condemnation of the doctrine (fruit) of the religious leaders of the day. The overturning of the dealers’ tables was a condemnation of the leaders love of money. The burning of the Temple and the enslavement of the Jewish nation came unfailingly 37 years later when Titus Vespasianus laid siege to unfaithful Jerusalem to eventually destroy her and her temple. The fruitless tree withered and the empty Temple burned.
Saint Paul told the Christian gentiles to be aware that the destiny of the Jewish nation was to return to God. As he told us that lesson, he warned us that both Jews and Christians are part of a three of righteousness. If we share the same roots, our growth, our experience will be alike.
I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches. If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. (Romans 11:13-21)
I thought of that when I received the news that the prophetic coconut palm in Puerto Rico’s Santa Montaña was felled (by hurricane Maria!) and the extraordinary coincidence of learning almost at the same time, that the venerable Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was burning on Holy Monday.
Our Catholic religious leaders have been too close to the powers that be, too accommodating to the changing ideas of the world, too willing to preach a sterile gospel of nothing. The destruction of Notre Dame is worth a cry but it is a mere building after all. In Jesus’ time, the religious leaders were willing to let a man die to save their puny building. In the end, they lost everything. In our day millions of human lives are sacrificed in the altar of abortion while many Christian leaders look the other way. Those little defenseless victims that will never grow to be men and women among us, are a judgment against the spineless religious system of our day, the same system that has handed the Church in China to the Communist leaders, the same system that talks about changing what God made eternal as proof of His power. The religious leaders of today would do well in heeding the words of John the Baptist:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees [religious leaders] coming to where he was baptizing, he [John the Baptist] said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7-10)
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