Mid-winter: dormancy, depth and darkness and the Parable of the Mustard Seed by Jan Garood

The changing seasons remind us that we are a part, not the central part, just one part of the organic whole, inter-dependent web of life on earth.  We were created from the same stuff as the earth, the  trees the rivers and oceans.  And like the natural world our bodies and minds experience the changing seasons. We are now in deep winter; this week the nights are getting longer until Monday week when we have the longest night.  And to add to the long dark there has been storm and tempest and cold.  It has been a week for seeking warmth and comfort and sending prayers to those whose homes have been damaged by floods and falling trees.

Mid winter is marked in many cultures from the Saturnalia debaucheries of ancient Rome to the St Lucia celebrations in Scandinavian countries where girls wear white dresses with red sashes and wreaths of candles on their heads paying homage to the martyr who brought food to persecuted Christians.

The Winter Solstice has been marked in Ireland for at least 5000 years. The spectacular cairn at Newgrange, was built about 3300 BC in precise alignment with the rising sun over the solstice each winter. This imposing and mysterious monument is testament to the importance of this time of year for the pre-Celtic Irish.  From the 18th to the 23rd of December, a narrow beam of golden sunlight illuminates this ancient tomb at sunrise (weather permitting!). Many thousands of people apply to a lottery for a coveted and rare ticket each year. But only 20 people can fit in the tomb to witness this spectacular event.

Common themes across cultures is to keep a log burning all night to ward of evil lurking in the longest night and staying awake to welcome the return of the sun at sunrise: the coming of the light.

Todays readings fit very well with this awareness of the seasons.  The first parable we read in Mark of the seed growing on its own.  It seems pretty straightforward: Jesus speaks about seeds and what they are supposed to do.  They grow and produce, we don’t need to know how, the shooting and growth is part of the rhythm of the seasons.

In other words, the Kin-dom of God will take root — It will grow gradually and without your help or your intricate knowledge of germination or photosynthesis.  It will grow perhaps so subtly that you won’t even notice, until at last it produces its intended fruit.  I did a search by the “Kingdom of God seeds and Wisdom” wanting a Wisdom interpretation of the parable.  I got no less than Pope Francis saying “Jesus says that the Kingdom of God does not come in a way that attracts attention: it comes by Wisdom,” (Nov. 14 2013 homily. [1])

Seeds doing what seeds do is very much what this time of year is about.  The earth appears dormant on the surface, but underneath the seeds are awakening, enjoying this week’s rain, perhaps sending down tentative roots and sending up shoots ready to break through when the sun warms.

In the Mark reading Jesus poses the question to us:  “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?”

What parable might Jesus use if instead of Galilee he were rambling along the Merri Creek?  Mull on that .  What parable/ metaphor would you use?

Freya Matthews is Adjunct Professor of Environmental Philosophy at Latrobe University. This week, I found a 20 year old article she had written about CERES [2] and what she had to say I thought contributed to the theme of what seeds do and awareness of the seasons.    She talks about the goddess Ceres the Roman version of the Greek Demeter and links that mythology with the rejuvenation of the site at CERES, concluding: .“This place has indeed become a sacred site, charged with the power of the old fertility goddess …….CERES both celebrates and powerfully invokes, the return of life, of fertility, to our blighted planet. ”  So perhaps CERES is itself a parable of the Kin-dom of God.

In the Ezekiel reading the noble cedar is the symbol of the might of the “Lord God.”  Jesus could have likened The Kingdom of God to the magnificent cedars of Lebanon which would have been much grander and impressive, instead he uses the mustard bush.  But the mustard bush is ordinary, scraggly.. It’s a bit of a weed. .Jesus audience would know this.

Matt Skinner[3] says the parable depends on satire. The Kingdom of God will mess with established boundaries and conventional values. Like a fast-replicating plant, it will get into everything. It will bring life and colour to desolate places. It will crowd out other concerns. It will resist our manipulations. Its humble appearance will expose and mock pride and pretentiousness.

These two parables about seeds insist that the Kingdom of God does not depend on humanity’s brilliance, moral virtue or spiritual cleverness. The parable says that there will be new shoots in unlikely places.  The kin-dom will come and it will come in unlikely places. [4]

In both the Ezekiel reading and Mark

we are told that the great cedar and the humble mustard bush provide shelter, food and habitat to many creatures.  The Kin-dom will benefit all living beings. It is for all of creation – it will provide sanctuary, hospitality, sustenance, and renewal to those who need it, not only despairing humans, but little birds, insects and all small creatures will enjoy its protection. The kin-dom of Sophia Godde will nurture its people to question the political structures that support endangering ecosystems – it will mess with established boundaries, it will find solutions that nourish and include all creation.

I included the Mary Oliver poem.  For Mary Oliver the Kin-dom, the nature of God, is evidenced every morning in her viewing the sunrise, she writes of it often.  I am a person for whom watching sunrises has been rare; most sunrises that I have seen have been when I’ve stayed up all night. Although as a child I loved seeing the sunrise from the train from Robinvale to Melbourne – the train left Robinvale at five a.m. So for me, the kin-dom may be sought in getting up earlier and exposing my soul to the beauty of sunrise!

The last thing to say is the language.  The Inclusive Bible uses the “Reign of God” which I find no better than Kingdom of God; both are imperialistic.  A Wisdom understanding of Jesus’ parables would not need imperialistic or managerial language.  The mustard seed suggests something altogether more unconventional, more subtle, something fluid and healing:  a spiritual inspiration, a healing breath, a loving touch, a kind word; something gentle, surprising, unexpected.  More a Movement than a Reign, more a Paradise than a Kingdom.


In Luke 17:21 When asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God will not come with observable signs. Nor will people say “Look here it is” or “There it is”.  For you see the kingdom of God is in your midst.”  The kin-dom is with us, we just have to find that deep well within. This is the time of year to go inside, to be meditative and reflective, to learn from the heart as well as the head.

[1] https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/28449/pope-francis-kingdom-of-god-comes-by-wisdom

[2] http://www.freyamathews.net/full-text-articles

[3]   (Matthew L. Skinner is Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary.https://www.workingpreacher.org/posts-by-tag/matt-skinner)

[4]  after Skinner

The link to Freya Mathews article: CERES: Singing up the City http://www.freyamathews.net/full-text-articles

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