September First is the beginning of the Eastern Church’s year.
This year, it also seems to be the first day fall. Last year Fall didn’t seem to come; the heat waves continued until the snow fell on live roses in late November. This year we’ve had a mild summer. The autumn cool threatened to come, every so often, from late July through August; today, on the first of September, it was chilly.
I put on my jacket and went for a walk.
I ended up on the ritzier side of LaBelle, admiring the gardens of the town’s more celebrated citizens. Many of them have statues of Our Lady, looking prim, in the flowerbeds in front of their porches. Most have gardens and carefully trimmed lawns, and some of those gardens are lovely. But many are just aesthetic enough to look inconspicuous, gardens and lawns that would work well as the establishing shot in a movie about typical upper middle class Americans. So much effort goes into giving an impression of uniform respectability: Roses of That Particular Color up by the porch, hydrangeas in That Shade of Blue at one corner, hostas of That Particular Breed lining the path, Those Waxy Impatiens in the shade, That Plaster Statue of Our Lady where she can be seen from the street. Sometimes she’s ensconced in a bathtub shrine and sometimes she’s surrounded by tacky Christmas lights, but it’s always the same plaster statue.
The alleys behind the houses tend to be more interesting. There’s no expectation of sameness back there. Burdock and Queen Anne’s Lace grow in the cracks of the retaining walls; that invasive Japanese Honeysuckle spills over the fence. Everywhere, you see the Rose of Sharon.
Rose of Sharon– that five-petaled flower that looks like a star, like a hollyhock on a woody shrub– is the flower my daughter is named after. It’s one of the titles of Our Lady. In the Song of Solomon, the dark and lovely bride declares herself a Rose of Sharon, and Solomon is enchanted.
In this neighborhood, I’ve noticed, more often than not, the Rose of Sharon is a weed. It grows in raggedy bushes around light poles and fences; it swallows up the porches of the derelict houses and towers at the corners of occupied but poor ones. It doesn’t want to behave. It doesn’t want to look respectable. Rose of Sharon grows up and outward like a cone, a stationary tornado, a ten-foot tree of purple, white or red stars. You can’t make the stars into cut flowers, because the stems are too woody and because the blossoms die in a few hours; you can’t do a thing with them. They will never be anything other than the blossoms on a Rose of Sharon.
I often struggle to find anything that I have in common with the Blessed Virgin. I’m not beautiful, ladylike, poised like a statue in a conformist’s garden. But I’m comforted when I remember that Our Lady is not a plaster image; Our Lady is a Rose of Sharon. She and her Son are both weeds– persistent things that look out of place and upset the proper man-made order. They never do anything right, not as Man counts right. Virgins ought not to be with child; if they do, they are no longer virgins but sluts. That any other arrangement should exist contradicts the way we’ve decided it should be. If mothers are virtuous, the Lord rewards them with many children who bring them honor– not just one Son who leaves His job, wanders around the country and eventually gets himself killed. That any person’s life belies this notion is a disgrace. Carpenters ought not to preach. Chaste men ought not to make small talk with adulterous woman. Nothing good can come out of Nazareth. People who prove this wrong are inconvenient. They are unattractive. They spoil the order we attempt to impose upon our surroundings.
Our Lady’s canticle was the Magnificat, that dreadfully inconvenient prayer declaring for all time that when God arises to scatter His enemies, everything we think we know will be overturned. Our Lord’s sermon was the Beatitudes, that mortifying exaltation of everyone the world dreads and humiliating condemnation of the complacent. Our Lord and Our Lady are the living assurance that nothing will ever go as planned. Nothing will look as we expected. There will be no flower beds, no carefully manicured lawns, no respectability at all. God will arise wearing the face of the person we hold in least esteem, and blessed be the one who is not ashamed when He comes.
There are far worse meditations, on a cool afternoon, at the start of the liturgical year.
Our Lady is not a plaster statue in a bathtub shrine, surrounded by the marks of respectability that you would like her to bear. Our Lady is a whirlwind all adorned with five-pointed stars.
Our Lady is a Rose of Sharon.