"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

The Parable of the Rice Plant

am fond of using images drawn from nature to describe deep truths about our Christian faith. To what shall we compare the different liturgical seasons and with what parable shall we illustrate particularly the season of lent? I compare the seasons from Advent to Easter as the different stages of growing rice. Advent is the soil preparation, Christmas is the germination and Easter is the harvest. Which part is the 40 days of lent? This is what farmers call reproductive stage. Whatever the rice variety or season, the duration is always constant—between 30 and 35 days gearing up for the flowering and pollination stage. Among all the different stages of growth, why the reproductive stage? I am so happy that this year’s Ash Wednesday coincided with Valentine’s Day, and it does so quite fittingly. The forty days of lent is connected to the forty years when the Israelites were on a sojourn in the desert. Did you know that those forty years were likened to a honeymoon when Israel was alone with the Lord.  The two had the desert for a bridal bedroom that shut out the noise of the outside world, just consummating their love. But the expression of such love between God and the person is a spiritual one which takes place in the person’s life of interiority. The desert is a path into the interior life and only those spiritually mature people who desire to grow interiorly can make the most out of the lenten season. This is also very true in other forms of animals, only the mature ones are capable of entering the reproductive stage and never the immature ones. The caterpillar cannot reproduce until it becomes a fully grown butterfly. In his message for this year 2024 lenten season, Pope Francis has a similar message: "Lent is the season of grace in which the desert can become once more – in the words of the prophet Hosea – the place of our first love (cf. Hos 2:16-17). God shapes his people, he enables us to leave our slavery behind and experience a Passover from death to life. Like a bridegroom, the Lord draws us once more to himself, whispering words of love to our hearts."

For my second point, there is also an opposing or negative experience during this stage of the desert journey. Despite being a honeymoon stage, it was also a time when the murmuring and infidelities began, when Israel lusted to be back among ‘the leeks and garlic and onions’ of Egypt, shying away from the challenges of life in the harsh and difficult desert. There were temptations, contradictions and challenges that came. They are always a normal part of the journey. Lent is like that, a moment when we should reflect on both our failures and triumphs, weaknesses and strengths, lows and highs. The two are never separate. Lent, maybe, is for the mature but it does not mean for the perfect only. Rather, it is for the imperfect, the sinners, especially those whose spirit are downtrodden or discouraged. Fasting and abstinence do not mean that we have to be pure first before approaching God, no! Lent is for those people who after having bottomed out, dirtied or have gone through the worst could begin the chance to rise again, our consciences being cleansed by the blood of Christ (cf. Heb 9:14). So let us not be afraid, lent is for our upliftment, ad aedificationem, as we move along we are built up. But a disposition of humility is asked of us always to die to ourselves. For from dust we came and to dust we shall return. Like a rice plant, it is not only rooted deeply, it also knows where the soil is to be found, down there and that dirt has become a sister in the words of St Francis of Assisi, "Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister Death, whom we must all face" (Canticle of Creation). The fasting and other devotions during lent do not mean we are giving out of what we have. No. It is more a fasting of the heart for us to realize that there is nothing that we can call our own, everything has been given and received. Everything grew from the humble earth like the rice plant. This is the most fertile disposition during lent, this is called poverty of spirit. We are called to be like the widow who offered out of her poverty. She was offering out of her deep hunger and thirst for God unlike the Scribes and Pharisees.

For my third point, going back to the imagery of the rice plant that is entering the reproductive phase. The climax of this stage is the flowering of the rice plant. As the flower begins to bloom, pollination starts to take place. In rice pollination, pollen simply falls from the anthers onto the stigma that lie just beneath (Hoshikawa, 1993), so-called gravity pollination (Fægri and Van der Pijl, 1979). Moreover, the pollination takes place at or slightly before opening of the florets (Hoshikawa, 1993). Lent culminates at this downward pollination when Jesus said “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” Jesus shows us the way from lent to his own downward act of giving himself up, the so-called "downward mobility" (Henry Nouwen) or "walk of love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph 5:2). It is the most fruitful of all acts. And the invitation of Jesus is to fall and follow the gravity and pull of God’s love. Amen. Fr JM Manzano SJ