The house we even­tu­al­ly bought when we moved back to Vir­ginia is a 1960 brick ranch. Neat and trim, it tes­ti­fies to all we know to be true about the com­mu­ni­ty around it. Its hard­wood floors, cop­per pipes, and eat-in kitchen are unpre­ten­tious, sen­si­ble, and built to last. This aes­thet­ic also explains the pres­ence of the six hol­ly bush­es once plant­ed along its front. Because hol­ly is ever­green and fair­ly low main­te­nance, it is a good, prac­ti­cal choice for land­scapes and gar­dens, espe­cial­ly for peo­ple whose lives are too busy to tend fussier orna­men­tals. But holly’s del­i­cate white flow­ers pro­duce a sig­nif­i­cant amount of pollen just when you want to throw the doors and win­dows open. Their loca­tion so close to the house com­bined with our youngest son’s extreme spring­time aller­gies meant that these bush­es had to go. 

This was eas­i­er said than done. At first, Nathan tried to dig them out, but their exten­sive root sys­tem kept them firm­ly plant­ed. Unde­terred, he opt­ed for force, wrap­ping a chain around the base of one and attach­ing it to the bumper of his truck. One bent bumper lat­er, it was obvi­ous who was win­ning. Even­tu­al­ly, he recruit­ed help in the form of a pass­ing neigh­bor with a big­ger truck, and soon enough, the addi­tion­al torque and horse­pow­er ripped the bush­es from the earth. You’d think we’d final­ly won. And yet a decade lat­er, we’re still pulling up shoots from the tap­roots that were left behind. 

Holly’s per­se­ver­ance, both as an ever­green and a deeply root­ed shrub, is mis­rep­re­sent­ed by the neat, domes­ti­cat­ed ver­sions we often find in neigh­bor­hood land­scap­ing. In the wild, some vari­eties of hol­ly grow up to eighty feet tall and forty feet wide, mak­ing it more like a tree than a bush. The ancients saw this as a sign of nature’s endurance and a promise that spring would return. The Romans incor­po­rat­ed hol­ly into their wor­ship of Sat­urn, and the Druids believed it ward­ed off evil spir­its. Even­tu­al­ly, it became a main­stay of Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the sea­sons of Advent and Christ­mas when its glossy leaves and bright red berries were used to deck the halls.” In fact, medieval church accounts record hol­ly being used in church dec­o­ra­tions from at least the twelfth cen­tu­ry.1But hol­ly was more than a con­ve­nient sea­son­al decoration. 

For the ear­ly and medieval church, the nat­ur­al world held spir­i­tu­al mys­ter­ies with­in itself, stand­ing as a kind of phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of truth. Hol­ly was a shrub, but it was more than that. This may seem a bit too mys­ti­cal for us in the mod­ern West, but don’t for­get that we live in a world of uni­ver­sal and com­pul­so­ry edu­ca­tion focused almost exclu­sive­ly on the devel­op­ment of the mind. From our ear­li­est days, we’re taught the mean­ing behind the let­ters and num­bers on a page. But imag­ine a time in which books do not exist — or at the very least, they are the purview of the wealthy and pow­er­ful. In such a world, learn­ing to decode the mean­ing behind a col­lec­tion of let­ters would be far less use­ful than learn­ing to decode the mean­ing behind the nat­ur­al world around you. This did not mean peo­ple were unin­tel­li­gent, mere­ly that their shared knowl­edge base was dif­fer­ent from ours. And so for gen­er­a­tions of Chris­tians before us, nat­ur­al rev­e­la­tion was the means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing spir­i­tu­al truth. 

I think about this — how God’s work is not bound by edu­ca­tion or class — when I read about Sime­on in Luke 2:25. Intro­duced to us sim­ply as a man in Jerusalem,” the most impor­tant thing about Sime­on is that he is right­eous and devout, look­ing for­ward to Israel’s con­so­la­tion, and the Holy Spir­it was on him.”2 His pres­ence in the tem­ple might lead you to think he was part of the priest­hood like Zechari­ah, but noth­ing in the pas­sage sug­gests this. 

He’s in the tem­ple on the day Mary and Joseph came to com­plete every­thing accord­ing to the law of the Lord,”3 because the Spir­it had led him there. Hav­ing been promised by God that he would not die until he saw the com­ing Son, Sime­on is by now an elder­ly man, long­ing deeply for the world to be made right. When he sees the infant Jesus, he is over­come with joy, sweep­ing him up in his arms in an unaf­fect­ed ges­ture of pure delight. Then this ordi­nary man proclaims: 

Now, Mas­ter,
you can dis­miss your ser­vant in peace,
as you promised.
For my eyes have seen your sal­va­tion.
You have pre­pared it
in the pres­ence of all peo­ples—
a light for rev­e­la­tion to the Gen­tiles
and glo­ry to your peo­ple Israel.4

But Sime­on has some­thing else he needs to say. Maybe it was the years of liv­ing in the bro­ken­ness, the decades of wait­ing and long­ing, the wis­dom that can only be learned from hard times and hopes crushed a hun­dred times over, but he knows redemp­tion will not come eas­i­ly. He knows there is no life with­out pain, no sal­va­tion with­out suf­fer­ing. So he turns to Mary with these words: 

Indeed, this child is des­tined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed — and a sword will pierce your own soul — that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

Schol­ars inter­pret these words as proph­esy­ing the com­ing cru­ci­fix­ion and pas­sion of Jesus. And in this sense, they are deeply the­o­log­i­cal and deeply Chris­t­ian. Because while the Romans and Druids cel­e­brat­ed hol­ly as a sym­bol of per­se­ver­ing life, Chris­tians saw some­thing dark­er hid­den among those thorny leaves and red berries. They saw some­thing of its pierc­ing nature. They saw in it a crown of thorns, spilled blood, and life after death. Known in some lan­guages as Christ thorn,” hol­ly became for them a sym­bol of Christ’s suf­fer­ing for the world. 

Because one day, the thorns of Gen­e­sis 3, the ones that grow up from the cursed ground, would press into the head of the promised Son. They would bite and tear at his flesh, pierc­ing his brow, the sins of the world mock­ing him. This was the life he was born to, the life he was des­tined for — to be a Sav­ior for the oppressed, a light to the Gen­tiles, and a Suf­fer­ing Servant. 

It was also the life Mary was called to share with him, to walk out her faith, not just in the moment of his birth but over the years of his life. Refus­ing to pro­tect him from his call­ing and, instead, sup­port­ing and par­tic­i­pat­ing in it — from his first mir­a­cle at the wed­ding feast to the foot of the cross and the emp­ty tomb. Mary was called to car­ry the weight of a mother’s heart pierced by her Son’s suffering. 

Because just as shoots of hol­ly keep pop­ping up in my front yard, the curse does not go eas­i­ly. The thorns con­tin­ue to grow because sin’s roots run deep­er than any of us under­stand. Noth­ing short of the life and death of the Promised Son can break its grip on this world. 

Like Mary, we, too, are called into the suf­fer­ing of Jesus. To bear wit­ness with the world as it groans for redemp­tion. To pro­claim that the blood of the Sav­ior is the only thing that can turn back the thorns. To know that if we fol­low in his steps, we will find our own hearts pierced as well. 

Dear friends,” writes the apos­tle Peter, don’t be sur­prised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you, as if some­thing unusu­al were hap­pen­ing to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the suf­fer­ings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glo­ry is revealed.”5

This is a strange kind of joy — one that can­not be explained by sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty or cel­e­bra­tion. It’s the joy of an old man like Sime­on, exhaust­ed and bro­ken by the suf­fer­ing of the world, hold­ing hope in his arms. It is the joy of a moth­er like Mary know­ing that her child will change every­thing, but that she will lose him in the process. It is the joy of those of us who have fol­lowed this Promised Son in the way of suf­fer­ing and found him faithful. 

It is the joy of the hol­ly tree, the joy of sharp pain and glo­ri­ous beau­ty per­se­ver­ing together.

  1. Mark Cartwright, A Medieval Christ­mas,” World His­to­ry Ency­clo­pe­dia, Decem­ber 1, 2018, https://​www​.world​his​to​ry​.org/ arti-cle/1288/me-dieval-christ-mas. ↩︎
  2. Luke 2:25. ↩︎
  3. Luke 2:39. ↩︎
  4. Luke 2:29 – 32. ↩︎
  5. 1 Peter 4:12 – 13. ↩︎

Excerpted with permission from Heaven and Nature Sing by Hannah Anderson. Copyright 2022, B&H Publishing.

Vintage lithograph illustration, European holly - Ilex aquifolium. 1958, Claus Caspari.

Text First Published October 2022 · Last Featured on December 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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