One thing that always struck me as odd though was seeing a patch of grass in a Croatian nativity scene.
I never saw that in the regular 'American' churches. After seeing it appear each year in our local Croatian church and realizing it wasn't an accident, but rather something intentional that someone meant to include as part of the crèche scene, and even placed very near the infant Jesus, I finally asked my mother what it was. She said very matter-of-factly "It's Christmas wheat, St. Lucy's Christmas wheat." "But why, it doesn't fit", I thought, having never seen it elsewhere. Again, so matter-of-factly, like it was common knowledge, she said "it symbolizes Jesus, He is the "new wheat".
I think I was breathless. I thought to myself, how can I have gone this long and not have known about that? My brain and heart were exploding. What a beautiful symbol that foreshadows both the Cross, in the crushing of the wheat to make bread, and Eucharistic bread for our spiritual food and His continued presence for us on Earth.
The Cross and Christ's Eucharistic Body, represented in tender, new, spring green, shoots of wheat grass, were so powerful to contemplate next to the infant Jesus as part of the Nativity scene.
A scene that we display habitually each year to remind us of His birth, but perhaps without directly linking the fact He came to save us through dying on the cross, and was crushed, ground like wheat, for our inequities. The juxtaposition of tender, vulnerable baby Jesus, and tender, vulnerable crucified Christ is arresting, but kindly veiled in the form of tender spring wheat. It points us to the direction of Good Friday without directly taking us there just yet.
We can also ponder that the wheat will be made into food for us, as a taste of heaven, through His Body in the Eucharist. It is fitting, as well, to note that Bethlehem, Christ's birthplace, actually means 'house of bread'. The image of wheat is beautifully reinforced in the name of that 'little town'.
So, why Saint Lucy? My mother explained (yes, very plainly), her feast day, Dec. 13th is about the two week mark before Christmas and the seeds are planted then so that the new shoots have enough time to grow to at least a few inches tall. Not sure if there's anything more to it than that.
From then on I was hooked and committed to hunting down winter wheat seeds each year and growing them myself and placing them at every image of Jesus in my house. I also loved finding new people to introduce to this super sweet, but rich in meaning, Croatian cultural tradition.
But it got better.
I was gut struck by the poverty of my humble gift, merely wheat. It would never be anything more than wheat -from my hands. Yet, he as a priest can take that wheat, and through the sacred words of Consecration, transform it into the very Body of Christ, that little baby we venerate in those nativity scenes.
I gave a priest simple wheat, merely the symbol of Jesus and he gives me back the actual Body of Jesus, under the appearance of wheat in the Eucharist.
What an uneven exchange!
If the priest eats my wheat, nothing changes in him, yet the Bread of Life he gives me divinizes me.
Is this not how we need to view the spiritual life and our relationship with Christ?
I, in my own mere mortal self, have nothing, and can be nothing without Him. His very Spirit is keeping me in existence with every breath I take. Without His Life, I have no life.
So, what can I possibly give Jesus as a gift?
Just myself, as I am.
I have no merit, really, that was not somehow His to begin with. He wants me to see myself as simple, limited wheat. Limited, which is my actual human nature, and then hand that limited nature back over to Him, so that he can make me divine. It's a daily miracle that I didn't merit, and yet, He freely gives it.
And even more surprisingly, more divine grace is given to us the more we see ourselves as merely plain, limited wheat. It's our awareness of our limitation that creates the space for the grace. The greater the awareness, the greater the grace.
As St. Paul says, "I boast in my weakness... for when I am weak, I am strong". [2 Cor 12:10]
My takeaway from that Christmas day was: come as you are and be eager to surrender the poverty within you.
There is no shame or weakness in acknowledging the poverty within me, it's actually what He wants from me.
It is precisely why He came. He wants to take and transform our poverty. It's the very reason why we celebrate the nativity of Jesus.
I don't need to prove myself worthy before I let myself come to Him, whether to the stable or to the Cross. I can never 'make myself' worthy. That's what He does.
He came in that blessed 'hour and moment' so that He can take us one day into His very flesh, nice and secure, as He returns us to the Father.
That's what I saw in the Christmas wheat.
Like the boy with five loaves and two fish, it's a humbling, uneven exchange.
*I have since learned that other European countries as well have a tradition of planting Christmas wheat with variations of meaning and interesting stories of miraculous events associated with it. If this was part of your Christmas tradition, please do share your stories!
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