In Advent and Always, Christ’s Cross is the Plow That Prepares the Soul
“Christ assumed a body,” said St. Macarius, “and using the cross as his plowshare, cultivated the barren soul of man.”
Jesus tells a parable where seed is scattered on different types of soil. Some soil is not right for the seed, and it never sprouts or is choked out by other forces of nature. This year, I gained a bit of insight into this parable through experience.
This summer my family and I moved to a large property (large by our New York City suburbs standards) in northwestern New Jersey where we could establish a hobby farm. Some of the property is still grass and hay, but many of the acres that were once pastureland are now a young forest. No animals have been kept here in quite a long time. There are no fences, gardens or barns — only field, forest and a house.
We began our hobby farm experience with rabbits, chickens and ducks. I had to build coops and hutches. We quickly realized that we needed a fence to keep the chickens and ducks from wandering too far from home, so we got some moveable poultry netting, which the chickens still manage to occasionally escape.
Posts are slowly going into the ground for a larger fence where we can keep all of the animals along with a livestock guardian dog. Some underbrush has to be removed for this fence. I am managing the woodland, under the direction of a forester, by removing dying and diseased trees. There are access trails that must be kept clear of large branches and fallen trees. Plans are being discussed for placement of a large garden, fruit trees, berry bushes and a bee hive. I am considering moving the ducks to a part of the property where there are year round natural springs, and that will involve more fencing and the construction of a duck house. In short, there is a lot of work to be done to make and keep the land fruitful.
So it is with our soul, and Advent is a time of preparation for the harvest God wants to reap in us.
When it comes to actual earth, there is a process for making it fruitful. Sigrid Undset’s novel Kristin Lavransdatter ends with a farmer’s reflection that “the earth has to be ground up before the food can grow.” His comment is also a metaphor for the spirit of man.
How can the earth of the soul be ground up? What is the tool that prepares the land of the soul to bear fruit? Who is the farmer who tends our spiritual fields?
The fourth-century monk St. Macarius explains:
“When a farmer prepares to till the soil he must put on clothing and use tools that are suitable. So Christ, our heavenly king, came to till the soil of mankind devastated by sin. He assumed a body and, using the cross as his plowshare, cultivated the barren soul of man. He removed the thorns and thistles which are the evil spirits and pulled up the weeds of sin. Into the fire he cast the straw of wickedness. And when he had plowed the soul with the wood of the cross, he planted in it a most lovely garden of the spirit, that could produce fruit for its Lord and God the sweetest and most pleasant fruit of every kind.”
The earth of the soul must be prepared by the Farmer and his tool. Christ is that Farmer, and his Cross is the universal tool that clears the land, builds the fences, tills the soil and prepares and maintains the land so that it can bear fruit 30 or 60 or 100 times what was sown.
Advent is a time of preparation. The waiting we do for the coming of the Messiah is not passive and unproductive. If I am waiting to begin planting seeds and breeding animals, I am not sitting on the porch and reading; in the cases of Advent and husbandry alike, there is an active waiting. I must prepare enclosures and soil for my farm activities with hammer, saw and shovel; the Cross must be at work in our hearts so that we can be ready to receive the coming of Christ. The Cross is never absent from the Christian life, just as it was never absent from the life of Christ.
This Advent, we can imagine the Cross digging deep into our hearts through prayer, fasting, the sacraments, and the trials that we face so that God might reap an abundant harvest from fertile souls. It is tempting to think about the parable of the sower and the seeds in static terms, of what people are like, but Advent is a time to think about the state of our own soul and what it should become. If we recognize weeds, rocks and birds that snatch away the seed, Christ himself is the Farmer who can transform any soul, if only we will allow him.