There once was a beautiful, wise and courageous woman, the daughter of a wise and wealthy father. Her favorite pastime was to tend her rose garden, which was well-known for the beauty of form and size and scent of its roses. A day came when she plucked, from among these most beautiful and perfect roses, the most perfect rose. Its shape and the softness of its petals brought to mind all the beautiful things in the world. Its scent was strong and perfect, seeming to lift cares from a troubled mind. She carried her rose with her into the streets of the city in which she lived, wishing to share such bounty with all her friends, her neighbors, and any strangers she might meet. Everyone loved the rose, except for a few who were envious of its perfection. These people surrounded the wise and beautiful woman, and demanded the rose of her. With a gentle smile, she handed the rose to the most violent among them. They took the beautiful rose, perfect in form and scent, and viciously tore at it, ripping it apart with their hands, stomping on it with their feet, wishing to eliminate it entirely. The wise and beautiful woman stood to the side, watching with her wise and gentle smile, now seeming to be a trifle sadder for the solitary tear that slid down her cheek. When the rage of the mob was ended, all stood quiet, as though stunned. The wise and beautiful woman stepped forward and quietly said, “Now, smell your hands, smell the scent of the perfect rose which you have released for all to enjoy.” Indeed, the scent was even stronger now, even seemingly more perfect. It wafted on a gentle breeze throughout the city. The mob, ashamed, went their ways, and the wise and beautiful woman went home to tend her garden.
That rose is Christ.
I wrote this on Lazarus Saturday (the Saturday before Holy Week), 3 April 1999. At the time I’d been compiling a number of lectionary indices (see the Lectionaries menu, above), and for that Lenten season, read the various appointed readings daily for various Western (Roman Catholic, Revised Common Lectionary) and Eastern (Coptic, Greek, Georgian, Armenian, and Syrian) lectionary traditions that I had collected by that point. The Coptic Orthodox lectionary was the strongest influence, I think, with the Georgian and Armenian, both representative of the practice of the Jerusalem church ages ago, in a tie for a close second. By Lazarus Saturday in the Eastern calendar, this metaphorical story had distilled itself, and I sat down at an outdoor table at a local pub and wrote it out in the space of just a few minutes. It was a truly remarkable experience.
Subconsciously, before writing my odd little metaphoric tale, the readings had obviously gotten to me. The pattern of suffering as purifying, enriching, strengthening, even divinizing, was not something I was consciously thinking of. I hadn’t, at that time, read much in Patristics. Still, those readings worked in an unexpected way. I mentioned above that the Coptic lectionary was probably the strongest influence. In fact, I came to look forward to my Coptic readings every day, moreso than to any of the others. The Coptic lectionary is deftly arranged, opting for a very skilled, highly literate thematic arrangement of readings related to the part of the year in which they fall. One can’t help but think that the Copts are well-familiar with suffering. They learned a secret about suffering and passed it on in their lectionary: to shine, one must burn.