Easter Azaleas

My grandfather once told me a story. He told me that long ago a Roman soldier cut down an azalea and fashioned it into a cross. It was upon this wood that Jesus Christ was crucified on. The first person of the Holy Trinity, The Father, placed a curse upon the azalea as he could not see His Son crucified on its branches. He made the azalea so small that it could not ever bear the weight of a human being ever again. Out of recompense, the LORD blessed the azalea with gorgeous blossoms to remind the world of the fairness of His well-beloved Son.

The story isn’t true, of course. The azalea is native to Southeast Asia and doesn’t appear in the Middle East, at least in the first century AD. But they are very much ingrained into Southern culture. And the story reveals a higher truth. My grandfather, outliving his wife and a widower for almost twenty years, loved azaleas. They were my grandmother’s favorite flower because they announced spring. A devout Catholic, my grandparents always paid for the Easter flowers for our local parish. But after my grandmother died, he would always include sprays of azaleas with the lilies. I tend to think that my grandfather did this not because of the story he told me, but because he believed that by virtue of my grandmother’s baptism and belief, she shared in Christ’s resurrection. In his cosmology, it was only a matter of countless ages before they would be reunited on that day that knew not winter – where it would be the eternal Easter.

Today, azaleas make me think of spring and Easter, but because of the story my grandfather told me they make me think of Good Friday. If we read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament in the context of Christ, we discover that it is really a book on hope and faithfulness that reaches its climax with Christ’s passion.

The Old Testament patriarchs are constantly battling a hostile, fallen world, full of enemies. God eventually liberates the Children of Israel out of the bonds of Egyptian slavery, yet they rebel. They are brought to a land flowing with milk and honey, to be ruled under God as their king under the stewardship of chieftains, or judges, yet they yearn for an earthly king. These kings then in turn rebel against God yet only a faithful remain who follow the prophets we come to prophetic literature. They receive the promise that a Messiah, the very manifestation of God’s presence will be with them. They only have to hold fast.

And so we get to the New Testament, where that Messiah comes in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Although of the line of Judah and a direct descendant of King David, He is forgotten and a person deemed of no consequence. This was prophesied directly by Isaiah – who can mark His generation? (Isaiah 53:8). Raised by a carpenter in backwood Galilee, this man would preach that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Spurned, rejected, with only a small band of fishermen, a tax collector, ex-prostitutes and women healed from chronic illnesses as His followers. Expecting an Earthly warrior king who would liberate them from the Romans, He would be betrayed. He would be tried and condemned. His own people will be too cowardly to kill Him, and thus we come to the climax of this story of faithfulness.

For it is when the children of Israel are asked by Pilate, “Shall I crucify your king?” And the leaders of Israel respond, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15) and this tortured carpenter finally dies, the spirit of the LORD that dwelled in the Temple of Jerusalem left, tearing the veil in two, and then came to dwell with a new nation – the hearts of those faithful who believe in His son. And so it is in that first Easter morning, at the rising of the Son, we see the women disciples of this carpenter coming to the grave to anoint Him. They bring spices to cover His body from the stench of corruption. They bring unguents to protect the corpse in its decomposition. They don’t expect much when visiting that garden – just a mangled, dead body. But they are rewarded with so much more. They find an angel sitting upon the stone and His burial wrappings folded up.

He is risen. He is not here.

I am reminded of the humble azalea. She keeps her green all year. She’s just a bush ten months out of the year. But she shines like gold in the spring.

We have all experienced a winter in our lives. A long winter that seems unending. The South has experienced this too in her history. But if there is anything to learn from the Gospels and from the azalea, it is that strength, beauty, and hope can be found in the most unlikely places. For Christians, we believe that God’s ultimate power was expressed not on the Mount when He traced the tablets of the Law with His divine fingers, or when Moses smote the rock. Instead, the expression of God’s power is to be found in a carpenter who taught people the fulness of the Law. It is perhaps why Easter, this season, resonates so much with our people. We look forward to the days of spring for it is in those days which tell us that the season of growth, summer, is not very far behind. But all of this means nothing if we do not internalize it. As the philosopher Albert Camus says “in the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

Strength and courage aren’t in gurus to be followed and you don’t have to look very far. Look around you. Look into yourself. You may be surprised what you find.

-By Southern Comfort