Have you heard about setting up an Advent branch, or as it is more often called twigs of St. Barbara? It is a nice and interesting Advent custom from Central Europe. Der Barbarazweig - Barbara’s twig is considered a folk Roman Catholic custom, but its roots are definitely pre-Christian and might go back to ancient Celts or Germans.
The custom is simple and lovely. A twig of cherry or any other early blooming bush or tree is cut on (or around) December 4th, the St. Barbara holiday. It is taken home and there it is forced (this is an ugly English technical term for accelerating growth, other languages use nicer allusions). With a bit of care and some luck, Barbara’s twig will bloom nicely ad profusely on Christmas Day. Just imagine how it must felt centuries ago, before any commercial florists and imported cut flowers! It must have been spectacular.
Strangely, I like this custom in our urban megacity setting even better. I like this idea of taking care of a barren twig in a vase and caring it into bloom. It is a new, different, hopeful, and nature-oriented spiritual discipline for Advent. When it is successful, cherry blossoms bring a sign of bright new life to the middle of the bleak and dark city winter. We (especially we Calvinist Protestants) divorced our religion and faith from nature. This old Advent custom marvelously reconnects faith, religion, spirituality, world and nature in a hopeful and harmonious manner.
The lectionary reading from the Gospel of Luke is leading us in a similar direction. This Sunday we will hear another part of what is being called the Synoptical apocalypse. It speaks about natural, political, military and cosmic disasters and catastrophes of the end of time. Fundamentalists just love this stuff, they like to frighten people into obedience. But not so Jesus! Towards the end, this long darksome discourse takes a surprising turn. We hear a parable of the Barbarazweig, or more precisely its Near Eastern equivalent, a budding reminder of promised hope. Come this Sunday to celebrate new hopeful eco-justice eschatology; join us in celebrating Environmental Advent.
P.S. A few instructions for your own Barbarazweig if you would like to try it. For any hope of success you need about 3 weeks of outside temperatures below 40 degrees. In NYC you might need to wait longer than St. Barbara’s holiday on December 4 to get this level of cold weather (What a nice reminder of the harmful effect of global warming, even blooming trees need a cold winter!). Ask a permission from an orchard keeper, get from your florist, cut in your garden, a thin branch with at least 10 buds (cherry, forsythia, plum or pear tree). Use a sharp knife, not scissors! And use slant cut. At home, repeat the cut if it stayed out and the cut dried. Submerge the branch for an hour or so in cold water (ad a few cubes of ice if it is NYC apartment water). Put it in a vase and take it to a coldest bright room (wintergarden) for a week or so replacing or adding water as needed. After it starts truly budding, bring it to your living room. It can all be done in the living room, but it is not ideal. A dash of flower fertilizer or a dissolved baby aspirin in the vase water can also help. Success is likely but not guaranteed (which is also nice part of this spiritual discipline, try it again next year.)
P.P.S. A divine judgement (a divination practice - Ordal) by blooming of the Aaron's rod as narrated in Numeri 17 is quite an interesting phenomenological parallel.