From the rough wood of the cruel cross, the tender shoots of new life emerge.
The tomb is empty.
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!
Our pale pink trellis roses will be flowering in gorgeous abundance in about six weeks. They grow up from massive vines. In stark contrast to the delicate, graceful flowers, the vines are rough-skinned, tough, craggy, crude, and studded all over with the sharpest of thorns. Barbaric, like an implement of torture. Barbaric, like the crown of thorns. Barbaric, like the cross.
The cross casts its long shadow on Good Friday, this darkest day of the Christian year. Worshippers the world over pause on this day to mourn the death of a loving and sinless brother, the one who took our ugliness upon himself and carried it with him to the cross.
Good Friday ends with the death of the Son of God. But as this church sign in Providence, Rhode Island proclaims, death isn’t the end of the story.
No. Not by far. Easter’s coming.
It’s a gray, chilly first day of spring here in northern Virginia.
It’s also Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of the holiest week of the year for Christians. On this day we look back to Jesus’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, when he was hailed as a hero. The enthusiastic adoration of the crowd was with him, for the moment.
Less than a week later, he would be dead.
Next Sunday marks Jesus’s true triumph, of course, on Easter Sunday. But before that, he faced betrayal, the cross, agony, and death. It’s tempting for us today to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, from joy to joy. But Christians are called to spend some time this week contemplating those exceedingly dark days between. Not to do so lessens the power of the risen Christ.
For additional thoughts on Palm Sunday and Holy Week, see this post from 2012: Palm Sunday: Everyone Loves a Winner.
Nearly two weeks after the blizzard, despite a recent warm-up and yesterday’s rain, sizable areas of snow remain. The day is gray and dreary, like most of the persistent snow patches. At this point, it’s hard to remember how beautiful the world looked on that Sunday morning after the storm, the fresh snow gleaming under a brilliant blue sky. Some photos, taken that day, serve as reminders.
In my last post I wrote about what was, for my family, quite a lovely blizzard. But a sudden snow two days before the storm had less than lovely effects.
All focus was on the massive, looming storm. Forecasters noted, as an afterthought, the possibility of snow showers, perhaps a “dusting,” on Wednesday evening before the blizzard. It was presented as insignificant, a non-event. There seemed to be no reason to reschedule the planned Church Council meeting. But by 6:30 that frigid evening, snow was falling in fat flakes and accumulating quickly. My daughter observed, with some concern, that cars negotiating the sharp turn in front of our house were creeping along. When traffic slows down here in Northern Virginia, we take notice.
But I wasn’t going to overreact. I was no longer a novice at snow driving. I still tend to avoid it if possible, but I’ve had some practice and years of good advice from my Rochester-bred husband. When I left for the meeting, I was surprised to find myself behind a line of cars moving at a snail’s pace. Surely they were being overly cautious, I thought. But before long, even at that slow crawl, I felt my car beginning to slide. It was evident that the roads hadn’t been pretreated; there was not a trace of salt or sand. The trip was just short of a nail biter. All through the meeting I kept an anxious eye on the falling snow. How much worse could the roads get? It probably wouldn’t be that bad, I kept telling myself.
Just before 9, I texted my family from the slippery snow-covered church parking lot. I would start for home, but I could tell it was going to be no easy ride. It was only three miles, but over old country roads that were notoriously narrow, steep and twisting. H and D both responded immediately. From H: he could come get me if I’d rather not attempt the drive. The roads were slick; they were bad on his drive home at 7. From D: the street in front of our house was a sheet of ice covered by powdery snow. Oh my. I’d start out anyway, and see how far I got. I was glad I’d worn my snow boots, dressed warmly and put a blanket in the car.
Usually, I find that the worry over an anticipated event is far worse than the actual event. In this case, the real thing was at least ten times as bad. That drive home is best described as absolutely treacherous. It was a combination of gridlock and out-of-control thrill ride. Traffic inched along hesitantly, stopped periodically, then inched along again. Maintaining momentum uphill was tricky. It was difficult to adhere to one of H’s most frequently repeated snow tips: increase your speed as you approach a hill. If you take it too slowly, you’ll get stuck! Not sliding sideways downhill was nearly impossible, no matter how slow the speed. Several times I considered leaving my car on a side street and starting to walk.
At one narrow turn in the road, we were stopped for such a long time that I got out and picked my way along the side to see what was going on. The car ahead of me was poised at the top of a steep, twisting hill. The driver said she was waiting for traffic to clear, since her car handled badly in snow. Two vehicles had been lodged at odd angles farther down the hill and were just getting disentangled. Once back in my car, I watched as the driver ahead began her descent. She immediately skidded sideways, but was able to maneuver back on the right track without too much difficulty. Suddenly, she was gone. She’d made it down the hill and up the next. It was my turn. My antilock brakes, fortunately, were in good shape. Somehow I managed to avoid drifting into a ditch or a stranded car, of which there were many. Thankfully, the car behind me gave me plenty of time to take the hill on my own.
When I pulled into the driveway, my heart racing, H was outside waiting. He’d been half-expecting my call for help.
I was among the lucky ones. My drive, though frightening, didn’t take very long, and I arrived safely, my car intact. Many drivers in the area were stranded for hours. The beltway was an ice-bound parking lot. Hundreds of traffic accidents were reported. City and county governments made profuse apologies. They repeatedly promised far better road prep for the coming storm.
Lessons were learned, it would seem. Well before the first blizzard flake fell, roads were treated, and plows were at the ready. Once the snow began in earnest, the roads were relatively quiet. Most drivers heeded the message of Wednesday night and left work in plenty of time, or never left home that morning. I’ve learned a lesson: If snowflakes are falling on untreated local roads, I won’t be at the meeting. Let’s just cancel that meeting.
This was the snow that caused all the problems.
It doesn’t look menacing, does it?
An unaccustomed sight appeared throughout Northern Virginia today: school buses. Due to the blizzard and what should have been an inconsequential “dusting” that preceded it, schools were closed for seven days. During the final two weeks of January, with the snow, the MLK holiday and a teacher workday, school was in session for one day only. During times such as this, I’m especially thankful that I like my daughter. And while it makes me sound cold and unloving, I’m glad she’s not younger. How pleasant it is that my constant accompaniment for her every snow venture is no longer required.
Our family’s winter storm experience was, all in all, quite enjoyable. As blizzards go, it was a good one, at least for us. I know there were others who weren’t nearly so lucky. It was forecasted accurately and well in advance, allowing plenty of prep time. The snow began right on schedule, at 1 PM on a Friday. I was back home after a second shopping trip for those “just in case” provisions. School had been canceled, allowing my daughter plenty of time to meet friends for an early lunch. She was anticipating not seeing non-neighborhood buddies for a while. Even my husband arrived home from the office well before the snow started to accumulate.
The snow fell according to plan, persistently and without a break, until the following evening. This wasn’t a showy storm. The flakes were small but steady. Saturday brought some wind, but no howling gales. And most important: our area never lost power. We had heat, light, hot water and all those interior comforts that are especially cherished when the weather outside is icy.
My husband was ready with the snow blower he’d bought just after the Blizzard of 2010. He was told he’d probably never need something that big down here in Virginia. He wanted it anyway. Growing up in Rochester, he dreamed of owning a powerful, sleek snow blower the way some kids dream of owning a Maserati.
In this case, it was a dream worth realizing. The big blower came in very handy.
H cleared our long driveway. He opened up walkable paths between our house and those of our neighbors on each side. (If you’ve ever tried body-plowing through twenty-eight inches of snow, you know it’s not easy.) He then cleared our neighbors’ long driveways.
He opened up a path on a side street that was untouched by plows for several days. He continued up and down that street until he’d cleared a lane wide enough for a car to pass through. This photo, taken by my daughter, shows how the sharply cut snow sections resemble two huge layers of angel food cake.
Here he is, returning from a full day of snow blowing, the afternoon sun’s rays falling on him like a benediction. You could say that all this work could have been accomplished by shoveling. That might be theoretically true, but it would have required far more helping hands and strong backs than were available. Plus many, many additional hours. His work was all the more valuable because it would be several more days before the streets into our neighborhood would be approached by snow plows.
With every gathering storm, I’ve always been grateful that I can ride it out with a snow management and removal expert by my side. This was certainly true during the Blizzard of 2016. A good boy from Rochester is indeed a good thing.
The last snowflakes of the Blizzard of 2016 (aka Winter Storm Jonas) fell five days ago, on Saturday evening. According to careful measurements by my husband and daughter, we got about twenty-eight inches. Most of the snow remains very much with us, in far less attractive configurations than the graceful, pristine drifts in which it fell.
Last winter brought frequent snows to Northern Virginia, as my ten snow day posts of 2015 attest. (See here and here.) But we haven’t had a truly stupendous snow event in five years. In December 2009 and February 2010 we were treated to nearly back-to-back blizzards. My daughter has been wishing for a similarly substantial storm ever since. She likes her snow measured in feet. She delights in tossing out the expected routines of daily life for all-consuming, all-day snow play and management. To her credit, she pitches in with the digging out. And the inconveniences that massive snows may bring: they’re simply part of the adventure. What she recalls most distinctly about our loss of electricity during the 2010 storm was using the grill to melt butter for birthday cake icing.
Here she is, barely visible atop a snow mountain at the Reston Town Center after the February 2010 storm.
And, after the more recent storm, atop a snow pile in the parking lot of a local shopping center. I guess she’ll always love to climb snow piles.
On a snow mound at our house during the Blizzard of 2010.
And two days ago, with Kiko on a similar mound in the same place, after the latest storm. Big Snow, happy kid.
Once again, it’s December. Too soon, as always. Although the pre-Christmas busy-ness has been no more extreme than usual, the details have kept my mind too crowded to devote time to writing. Or to much thought, in general, for that matter. It’s hard not to let the post-Thanksgiving lead-up to December 25 become an endurance game of checking off never-ending lists. Lights replaced on the playroom tree? Yes. Whew. Cross that out. One small victory. On to the next task, with many more to follow.
Last year I wrote about the fine line between reveling in the spirit of Christmas and veering off the deep end into holiday excess. (See here.) It’s an issue I guess I’ll grapple with until I’m physically unable to haul out the decorations. But that might not stop me. Will I be directing my daughter, or some kindly, younger neighbor? I hope not. But then again, no one else could do it to please me.
Anyway, the wreaths are up on our house and on the old maple stump out front by the road. The stump survived another year. This summer it played host to a thicket of tall green foliage.
As long as any part of the decaying tree remains, we’ll decorate it in December. For me, it’s a reminder of the true spirit of Christmas: because a baby was born many years ago in Bethlehem, out of death comes new life. That is the best antidote to holiday excess I can imagine.
For my first post on this subject, see Deck the Tree Stump, posted almost exactly two years ago.
Today is the day for that steady, late fall rain that washes much of the brilliant color from the trees. In tomorrow’s sunshine, many branches will be newly bare. Gutters and lawns, though, will gleam red, orange and gold. One of the brightest patches in our area will be beneath this magnificent tree.
Located behind our church, it’s adorned with some of the most vividly red leaves imaginable. I’d always assumed it was a maple. When someone referred to it as an oak, I knew that wasn’t right. But in September, when Kiko and I were sitting in its shade for the Blessing of the Animals, I realized I was wrong, too. This was no maple. The leaves, still green then, were the wrong shape. And there were berries. Bluish-purple berries, like elongated blueberries.
What was this tree? No one seemed to know. But mention “that red tree by the church” and everyone knew exactly which one you meant. I began an internet search. Googling “trees with blue berries” didn’t provide a quick answer.
Then I remembered my little tree book, which I’d recently brought from Atlanta. As I mentioned in a previous tree post, a neighbor gave me the book when I was a child. She encouraged me to look closely and appreciate nature as we saw it all around us. She was Eugenia Brown, a Southern lady with a Southern name, a proud graduate of Decatur’s Agnes Scott College some decades before. (Daddy thought she was too old to be talking so much about her Agnes Scott days.) Mrs. Brown was a wise woman, and I’ve only recently begun to realize the impression she made on me. She wasn’t particularly religious, but I can see now that when we examined leaves, acorns, pine cones, shells and flowers, she encouraged my sense of wonder for that vast and easily overlooked array of amazing little things God made. His little creations–those unique, tiny masterpieces of design–they have always brought me joy. For that gift, I thank Mrs. Brown.
I found the book, and sure enough, I discovered the tree almost immediately, recognizing it from the handy close-up painting of its red leaves and berries. It’s a Black Gum tree. Also known as Black Tupelo, Sourgum or Pepperidge. According to the concise text, “Black Gum leaves are smooth and shiny, turning brilliant red in fall. The dark blue fruit is eaten by birds and small mammals.” Bingo.
Yet again, thank you, Mrs. Brown. And thank you, God. Had I not known Mrs. Brown, had she not given me the tree book, I might not be able to find such solace in the beauty of little things and the God who made them. How wonderful it is that our God designed bright red canopies with plump blue berries to shelter and sustain His littlest winged and furry creatures! To paraphrase that old hymn, His eye is on the berry, and I know he watches me.
Early last week it appeared likely that the great beauty of the season had passed. I hadn’t been looking, and I’d missed it.
But my pessimism was unwarranted. Just look!
I understand how Ebenezer Scrooge must have felt, awakening after his ghostly visitations, to realize with elation that he hadn’t slept through Christmas. Scrooge hadn’t missed that momentous, holy day, and I haven’t missed this spectacular season. The sudden, gloomy cold snap didn’t last. Fall is still here, at least for a few more days. And recently, it’s been as brilliant and colorful as it should be.
I don’t have to drive to the mountains or down to the Valley to appreciate the show. Fall is playing just outside my windows. The view down the street, with the trees arching overhead, can hold its own next to any grand sight.
You probably have equally glorious views close to home, too.
Don’t forget to look.
The show is on now, but it’s a limited engagement!