I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because, by it, I see everything else (C.S. Lewis)

It is no wonder that sunflowers, with their bright yellow petals, cheery disposition, and unmistakeable sun-like appearance should be named Helianthus: Helios translates as sun and anthos means flower. The literal meaning of this word is a flower of the sun. With great devotion these flowers with their tall stalks and bright petals, not only stretch towards the sun, but appear to follow the sun as it moves each day from East to West in the sky. It is this devotion to the sun that led ancient cultures to endow sunflowers with religious significance, symbolising loyalty and devotion, like followers of faith.  No matter how small or how little light there is, sunflowers are believed to seek out the light and hold their heads high as if in worship and adoration of the sun. Science also confirms this mysterious movement of the sunflower towards the sun as heliotropic.

Sunflowers need full sun to grow properly and, it should come as no surprise that they develop best in summer. They thrive when grown in large clusters, as they shade the ground and keep the roots cool and the ground damp for longer. These groups of sunflowers afford protection from the wind and can help support each other. When the sun disappears behind the clouds, the bereft sunflowers turn towards each other to draw nourishment and energy from their companions. Perhaps, they have much to teach us, if we have “eyes to see” (Mt.10:13-16).

This turning towards the Sun resembles the relationship of Jesus towards his Father. Indeed, in the prologue of John’s Gospel, Francis Moloney narrates:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was turned towards God, and what God was the Word was also (Jn.1:1)… ‘No one has ever seen God; the only Son who is turned toward the Father, he has made him known’ (Jn.1:18)

We are more used to the phrase ‘the Word was with God, but this fails to capture the true sense of the Greek text (pros ton theon) which has a sense of motion towards. The heliotropic movement of the sunflower towards the sun captures this dynamism of the relationship between Father and Son. Like the Sunflower turned towards the sun, Jesus is always centred on the Father, because ‘I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me’ (Jn.5:30). The roots of Jesus’ relationship with his Father were sunk deep in the Father’s love (Eph.3:14-19). This foundation of security in the Father’s love enabled him to withstand criticism and rejection and stand firm when his identity was attacked by others: “If you are the Son of God…” (Mt.4:6; Lk.4:3). He experienced himself as the beloved of the Father (Mk.1:11) and rejoiced in his identity as Son.

In the Gospels, Jesus withdraws into solitude so as to commune with his Father in prayer and teaches others to pray to his Father as Our Father.  He depends on his Father to provide. He thanks his Father in advance before the multiplication of the loaves (Mk.8:36; Mt.15:36, Jn.6:11:41), before the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn.11:41) and before his self-offering on the cross made present in the Eucharist, at the Last Supper (Mk.14:17-26). This thanksgiving is not just a token of gratitude to God; it prepares the way for miracles that follow, as it expresses deep trust, confidence and faith in his Father.

As the dark clouds of the passion gathered, he was plunged into darkness on the cross. His gaze still remained turned towards the Father, but like the Sun his Father’s presence had been eclipsed. He cried out in agony: ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’ I wonder, if at that moment, did his eye catch the steadfast gaze of his mother looking up at him from the foot of the cross? Just as the Sunflowers turn towards each other at the disappearance of the sun, so too, did they both turn towards each other in their mutual love? Was her fidelity a reminder to him of his Father’s love whom he could no longer feel in this crucible of desolation? 

Just as the sunflower with its dark centre seems to absorb the darkness of pain and despair, so too, did the Son on the cross. Taking it upon himself, he bears the sin of humanity and shares in our sufferings, experiencing above all our sense of alienation from God, as Father. Such pain which can only be destructive is transfigured by his love. With his outstretched arms he embraces the darkness out of love for us. The darkness changes. It is encircled by his love, sprouting yellow petals like the rays of the sunflower.  It becomes a thing of beauty integrating the pain and suffering and, in the process, creating something new. New life pours forth.

Many things can attract us or distract us, but perhaps, it is good to ask ourselves periodically: What am I turned towards? Can we learn from Jesus to turn towards the Father and allow ourselves to receive the rays of his love? The more we receive of his love, the more of his love we can share when we turn towards others. Especially when God seems distant or even absent, let us learn from the sunflowers and turn towards each other. In this way, we may draw nourishment and reflect something of God’s presence in our lives.  Indeed, as St Francis de Sales reminds us, through such friendships we give birth to God-between-us so that Jesus lives again. 

By Fr Eunan McDonnell