Saturday, April 23, 2011

Before the Party Begins: In Praise of Winter

In just a couple hours Easter is here!

I can't wait to stand with the gathered saints and hear "The Lord is Risen!" with a cacophonous responsive shout, "He is Risen Indeed!"

I am eager for the Lenten season of purification to give way to a season of rebirth, renewal, and the fresh winds of new life springing up from the ground!

But... wait.... first..

Before the party begins I want to offer a salute, a pause, a reflection to give the honor that is due to the cold and stillness that is the apparent death of winter.  Before the joy of spring (that is what 'lent' means) bursts into full bloom, lets take a moment to praise the season of death that made this possible.

To help make sense of this unexpected delay of the Easter party, a poem...

A beech tree in winter, white 
Intricacies unconcealed 
Against sky blue and billowed
Clouds, carries in its emptiness
Ripeness: sap ready to rise
On signal, buds alert to burst
To leaf.  And then after a season
Of summer a lean ring to remember
The lush fulfilled promises.
Empty again in wise poverty
That lets the reaching branches stretch
A millimeter more toward heaven,
The bole expanded every so slightly 
And push roots into the firm
Foundation, lucky to be leafless:
Deciduous reminder to let go.
~Eugene Peterson

(If the beauty of this escaped you.  Read it again, please.)

I remember sitting out in the square early one morning last November at Columbia Theological Seminary.  I arrived early to enjoy a sunny, crisp fall morning while doing some pleasure reading before class.  A soft breeze blew.  Delightfully cold - the kind of softness and chill that wakes your senses up to life.  I then heard rustling in the leaves much loader than the meekness of the breeze warranted.  So I looked up from the fascinating tales of The Life of Pi.  At this I saw something that I had never witnessed before.  All my years spent camping, hiking, backpacking, and being nourished by wilderness and inspired by the colors of fall... and I had never seen this before.  Leaves en masse falling off a single tree.  No, this was not a handful of leaves gently tumbling through the fall winds.  Not every 50 or 100 leaves.  It was as if half of this tree's leaves all decided that this was the moment to let go.  Did one call out, "It's time" and they all submitted to the death of winter?

I was stunned.

I remember looking around and wondering if anyone else had seen this.  I felt like I'd been invited to watch a great natural miracle.  I also remember thinking that if some alien being who'd never seen trees before had witnessed that with me they would have assumed that tree was deathly ill.  It would have appeared a tragic moment of life fading over to final death.

But, of course, I embrace the beauty of this because I understand how the seasons work.  I knew that this rush of falling leaves, though unique for me in that form, was necessary if growth, life, and fruitfulness were to continue.

Death is necessary for new life.

"Only where graves are is there resurrection." (Nietzsche)

We recognize, as the poem reminds, that a tree in winter, though apparently dead, "carries in its emptiness ripeness."  We know that trees are "lucky to be leafless" because it "lets the reaching branches stretch a millimeter more toward heaven."

Why don't we embrace this about life?  We are not alien creatures unaware of the seasons of life, the ebbs and flows of existence.  We have witnessed the many times over.  Yet rather than soaking in the miraculous beauty of leaves fallen and branches empty... we choose to be the only tree in the forest stressed out and depressed about the onset of winter.

I, like you, am ready for the rebirth of Easter to wash over me.  I am ready of green, lush leaves, for warm days, for blooming buds, and for flourishing growth.  In a word I am ready for - resurrection!

Before our hearts and minds move there, though, I do want to offer my praise to God for Lenten confessions, for the purging pains of winter.

Father of nature, forgive this dogwood's fear, doubt, and vain attempts to not let my leaves fall.  Thank you for these trees that are "deciduous reminders to let it go" more freely with a sense of awe and beauty rather than agitation and faithlessness.  And I praise you, dear Father, because I know, even as I anticipate with a quickened spirit the dawning of Easter morning, that I am "lucky to be leafless."

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