“Flowers in the desert” my friends and I would call these little graces, gifts of hope or promise during times that seemed dominated by absence.
They varied in nature or significance: A chance encounter on a plane. An intriguing new addition to the social circle. An anonymous gift of a $100 bill. A word from a friend that was undoubtedly in fact a word from God.
These little things would be signs that would carry us through.
But they were only signs; therein lay the thorn on the rose. Pressed too hard, they did not deliver, but would in fact disappoint if mistaken for the Gift.
The airplane conversation opened windows to vision, but no doors. The new relationship was flattering and fun, but not “The One.” The money was quickly spent. The word brought peace for a time, but then back to waiting and wondering, “Where am I Lord? What am I doing? What are You doing? Are you even there?”
Anyone who has walked in the faith for some time has likely come to know the seasons of the soul. There are days of spring, when all things seem to proclaim the glory of God, when streams of grace flow amply and flowers bloom everywhere. In such seasons my heart knows easily the nearness of God, quickens with a song or a verse or just the simple suggestion of Presence.
But there are other seasons, seasons of winter, when it seems that life lies buried under the frozen dry ground. When the same words that once caused my heart to flutter, read again do not move me at all. When prayer feels like an empty exercise, a movement of the mind and will, while the heart is cold and still.
It is in the winter desert that faith becomes real.
Once upon a time, I thought that this meant that I was being tested, that I would prove myself a real Christian with heroic acts of faith, hope and charity that rose above my feelings. But I am no more able to produce these than a wanderer in the desert can produce water or an oasis. In the desert, it is God who provides.
Centuries ago on a hill called Tepeyac Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego. She asked him to go to the bishop with the request that a chapel be built in her honor. But the bishop was uncertain and asked for a sign. Our Lady provided.
She sent Juan Diego to gather roses from the desert hillside, of a kind that had no business growing in winter. Juan Diego is delighted with this gift, sure that it will be what the bishop is seeking. Our Lady carefully arranges the roses in his tilma, and Juan hurries to the bishop’s palace.
But as we know, the roses were only a means to reveal something greater. When Juan Diego opens his tilma, it is Our Lady’s own image that is revealed.
There are many moving details to this story, but of special significance are the eyes of Our Lady in this image of Guadalupe. The image itself confounds scientists—that there are not brush strokes, that it has been held by the rough cactus fibers, that is has survived for centuries—all indicate something miraculous. But a close look at the eyes in the image is even more startling—the iris and pupils show the images of people, as would appear in eyes that were photographed. And the proportions of these people are different in each eye, as a true photograph would show—but this image on the tilma predated the invention of photography. Even the microscopes used to reveal these images in the eyes did not exist at the time that Mary’s image appeared.
Many believe that the people shown in Our Lady’s eyes are Juan Diego, the bishop, and those present at the unveiling of the tilma. That even as they were looking to see signs, Mary saw each person present, held them in her gaze—and does so to this day.
Roses in winter reveal the vision of God. We are seen by heavenly eyes, held by hands that we cannot see. Even in such times, we are not alone. It is not the gifts that we seek, but the Giver.
“Am I not here, who am your Mother?” Our Lady tells Juan Diego. Her image shows her belly, swollen with Presence. She who became Mother to Emmanuel mothers us too, and calls us always to her Son.
In today’s Gospel we hear the first proclamation of the Incarnation, the Good News of the coming of Emmanuel. The name Emmanuel means God is With Us.
It is He Himself who comes to save, to be with us. More than a sign, He is the reality our hearts long for.