The Century Plant (Agave Americana) is a type of agave plant that is native to northern Mexico and southern Texas. I came across it in my recent travels. It is particularly suited for dry, higher elevations. The plant’s name is a misnomer. It does not live for a century. Generally, it lives between eight and thirty years. When it blossoms, it puts out a single stalk that can rise up to twenty feet from it’s thick, leafy base. Little branches will grow out of the stalk and at the end of each branch a cluster of bright yellow flowers will grow upward – attractive to insects and birds. The sight of these towering plant stalks with their yellow blossoms is quite dramatic against the dry desert landscape. What is also dramatic is that the plant will (for the vast majority) only bloom once – at the end of its lifespan. So, when you are looking upon this amazing spectacle of height, color and beauty you are also looking at a plant that is actively dying.
Our Christian faith is centered around a God who died for us and in that dying revealed the depth and beauty of God’s love. This same God – who died for us – also taught us that – as his disciples – we must pick up our own crosses and follow after him. That to be true disciples we must also go through the journey of “dying to self”.
Can we recognize the beauty in this?
In his second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about the “thorn in the flesh” given to him, “an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.” Much ink has been spilt over the centuries arguing what this “thorn” might have been. I do not believe that Paul ever specifically says and he does not have to. It is valid that every person has some things kept between himself/herself and God. Despite what social media tries to impress upon us all, we do not have to be open books to the world in every aspect of our lives.
What Paul does share is that there was a grace and wisdom which he gained from this “thorn”. Paul writes that God responds to his entreaties with, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, Paul will boast in his weakness, he even goes on to share, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Following upon my trip to Big Bend National Park, when I read these words by the apostle I now easily envision the century plant – a witness of life, beauty, height, strength, color even in the very midst of its dying.
Is there a beauty to be found in dying to self? Very much so. It is a real beauty and an authentic beauty and so often (for those with eyes to see) it does stand out from its surroundings in dramatic contrast.
“I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong,” writes Paul and writes every disciple (maybe not by word on paper but most importantly by the witness of their life) who undertakes the journey of dying to self.
God sees the beauty and God rejoices.