Timorese Poinsettia

Timorese Poinsettia

According to all the online histories I read, this brilliant red flower that I associate with Christmas-white snow, was the result of a legendary miracle.

Guess I had it wrong – interpretation of the Christmas poinsettia, that is. According to all the online histories I read, this brilliant red flower that I associate with Christmas-white snow, was the result of a legendary miracle. A young girl from Mexico (the origin of poinsettias) — her name is Pepita, poor, humble, sweet, reverent — visits baby Jesus on Christmas with only a bouquet of weeds to greet his birth. But because of her sweetness and sincerity, the weeds are miraculously turned into gorgeous poinsettias. The traditional gloss on what this means is that the shape of the poinsettia leaves represents the Christmas star, the red represents Jesus’ blood, and, if the leaves are white, they are said to represent Christ’s purity.  What I have overlooked, indeed have been oblivious to all these years is the redemption message embedded in the poinsettia. Where others see Christ’s blood on the cross and God’s redeeming love, I see red flower against white snow and feel hope.

October is usually the driest time of the year in Timor, but this year it has stretched well into November.  Our neighborhood becomes hotter and drier as the rice fields behind our house are harvested, leaving behind rice stubble to burn and plow back into the soil. Throughout Timor much of the landscape is barren, the land cracked deep, no color but brown.  Today’s newspaper says that hundreds of cattle have died of thirst. Papers on my desk stick to my sweaty arms, fans cutting hot air give little relief, tempers run short, emotions high, constructive energy low.

But some gifts are given only at this hottest time of the year, like really sweet, really juicy mangoes and fluffy white cotton bursting out of its pods. But what most moves me are the bougainvillea plants that dot many a yard, their flowers glorious in shades of pink, orange, and white. Even if early November is the wrong time of the year liturgically, the bougainvillea flowers remind me of the Christmas poinsettia – in the midst of a desolate landscape, there is always, year after year, this sign of hope that life persists and will flourish again. 

Two things about bougainvillea strike me. Bougainvillea is a tough plant with big thorns that run all along its branches. Despite its beauty and, therefore, a likely candidate for a baby Jesus bouquet, it is unlikely a sweet girl such as the imagined Mexican Pepita would have picked it. It is difficult to cut and handle. The second thing is that a key aspect of a bougainvillea’s flamboyance is contrast—bougainvillea blossoms stand out because they are set against a dominant backdrop of monotonous brown.

That’s the thing about hope as well. More often than not it is more thorny than velvety and can be difficult to handle. It often seems prickly because it must push back against all that threatens it—suppressed histories of corruption and impunity, dishonest relationships, manipulation of institutions for personal glory and gain, confusion of human rights as consumer preferences. To be hope in the midst of pain, denial, or just dull oblivion may not always appear as an oasis or feel comfortable.  The other thing about hope is what constitutes it as hope, namely that it stands, speaks, expresses itself in flamboyant contrast to the dryness and monotone resignation that often surrounds it. It is hope, in large part, by virtue of its contrast to the dominant landscape.

Christmas poinsettia, Timorese bougainvillea—these plants remind me that God so loved the world; God still does. May Christmas renew our hope to keep struggling for peace, justice, and the integrity of God’s good creation.