Ash Wednesday 2021

It’s a bitterly cold Ash Wednesday here in Northern Virginia, as in much of the country. An icy breeze whips up from time to time. But the sun is shining, and at least perhaps until tomorrow, nothing frozen is falling from the sky. The weather seems appropriate. It’s conducive to imagining the joy and beauty of an ideal Easter morning while experiencing the big chill of Ash Wednesday. This is a day for a clear-eyed, head-on look at our mortality, a time to peer into the bleakness of what would have been, had it not been for God’s saving grace. It marks the start of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, during which prayer, repentance and self-denial are encouraged. Lent’s Biblical basis is Christ’s retreat to the wilderness to commune with the Father in preparation for his ministry.

If you venture out today, you’ll probably see messy smudges on some foreheads. Our church and others in our area are offering do-it-yourself ashes this year because of the pandemic. So, what’s the deal with the ashes? It’s because of these words from Genesis 3:19, declared by God to Adam and Eve, just before He ushered them out of Eden, the paradise garden He had intended as their eternal, blissful home. 

You are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

Tough words from the Creator and landlord.  What did the privileged first couple do to make God so angry?  Incensed enough that He sent the two, created in His own image, out into desolation, to eke out a living through toil and pain? 

Many of you who didn’t grow up attending church and Sunday School, along with some of you who did, no doubt consider the saga of Adam and Eve just another myth for the simple-minded who are ready to believe anything.  Whether you see it as God’s literal truth, an interesting folk tale, or something in between, it’s a powerful story worth contemplating.  Here’s my take on the Fall and its particular significance on Ash Wednesday.

Adam and Eve lived in a glorious garden created by God, suffused with His divine light, life and love. They had full-time leisure, full-time luxury. God walked with them there in the garden. The trees dripped with delicious treats, theirs for the easy picking. All except for the apples on one tree. A tree with an impressive-sounding name: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Life was wonderful.  Life was beautiful.  

Among the friendly and fantastic creatures of the garden, there was a serpent.  He was wise and wily, and he knew about that whole free-will thing.  Indeed, he owed his very existence to what he saw as the weak link in God’s great plan.  The serpent looked with contempt upon the innocent contentment of the two humans.  He realized the fragility of the thread that kept them in their lovely home.  It wasn’t long before this scaly Con Guy Supreme made his move.  Appealing to Eve’s pride, he offered an opportunity for further greatness.  Knowledge equal to God’s was at her fingertips, but God selfishly chose to keep this power to Himself.  She deserved better, didn’t she?  So Eve ate from the tree.  Adam, who apparently needed no convincing, munched long complacently.

God found out.  He wasn’t happy.  Paradise was lost, for the taste of a forbidden fruit.  We may think we would have known better.  But probably not.  Like Eve, we might have been tripped up by pride.  Or maybe, like Adam, we might have given very little thought to the matter.  If Eve says it’s fine, it must be.  In simply thinking we would have known better, it’s evident that we would not have.  With free will comes the ability to make the wrong choice, a choice we tend to exercise repeatedly.  Like Adam and Eve, if left to our own devices, our fate would be to wander in the dust.

But we are not abandoned, without hope, in a barren land.  Paradise is still within our grasp, as these words from Mark 1:15 tell us:

Repent and believe the good news!

On Ash Wednesday, we confront the grim reality of our tendency toward pride, selfishness and petty meanness.  On our own, none of us will ever be good enough to work our way back to Eden.  But we don’t have to be.  The Christ that was already present within creation since God spoke the universe into existence, the very Word of God described in John 1: 1 – 5, came to earth in human form.  Jesus, fully divine yet fully human, took our sins upon Himself.  As the spotless Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice, He wiped our messy slates clean.

To accept Christ’s free gift of salvation, we merely need to acknowledge our wrongheadedness and to ask forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness is granted for our willingness to repent; it’s not contingent on our going forward without a misstep.  We are human; we will stumble and lose our way at times.  We cannot be perfect in this lifetime, but we can desire to achieve perfection.

The Ash Wednesday ashes are marked on the forehead in the shape of a cross, the instrument of death that became the tree of life.  Christ’s good news saves us from a future of ashy, dusty nothingness, replacing it with the promise of unimaginable joy in a paradise everlasting.  We can’t even comprehend unending joy; our flawed human nature prevents us.  But we will understand it fully, and magnificently, one day, I am convinced.

On this frigid Ash Wednesday, the sun’s rays fall on the tips of new green daffodil shoots in our yard, just barely visible in the photo above . We are reminded of the new life that comes of death, of the new birth offered to us without price. On this Ash Wednesday, look into the darkness of the ashes. Then give thanks for the love that pulls us back into the light.

After nearly a year of Covid hardships and precautions, many of us may be feeling as battered and unkempt as this snowman looks. The promise of Ash Wednesday assures us that our future is much brighter.

Most of the text of this post was previously published in Wild Trumpet Vine on March 6, 2019. The weather is much the same as it was then, and the photos are current.

Back Again: Snow Season

It’s snow time once again here in Northern Virginia, as it is in many parts of the country. While 2020 brought much in the way of unexpected and unwanted developments, it brought very little snow to our area. What did fall was fleeting. It didn’t linger. The white stuff began here early Sunday morning, and it hasn’t stopped. Fine flakes have been floating down, without haste, but steadily, for three days now. We’re not used to it.

Kiko was understandably irked by the crunchy ice coating on Day 2 that collapsed with his every step as we attempted to cross our front lawn. After a few belabored attempts at progress, he refused to move, looking up at me plaintively. I had no choice but to carry him. After that, we avoided grassy areas. But the edges of the street are problematic, too, as the salt stings his paws, again stopping him in his tracks.

He’s apparently decided that the best way to enjoy the snow is from the comfort of his raised bed by the window. The local wildlife stands out distinctly against the white background, providing hours of comfortable entertainment for an elderly lounging dog.

It’s a pretty, puffy, fluffy snow, exuberantly frosting leaves, branches, and tree trunks. . .

. . .and dramatically coating the evergreens.

Other parts of Virginia were treated to a similarly beautiful snow. Our daughter, now back in school, sent this photo of the grounds of the University of Virginia. Because her coursework continues exclusively online, she needn’t trek through the snow unless she feels like it. A rare pandemic plus. We’re learning to appreciate these when we stumble upon them.

Will this be our last substantial snow of the season? Is there a blizzard, like the one from 2016 pictured above, bearing down on us soon? Will we have an early, gorgeous spring?

2020 taught us that many so-called certainties are not, in fact, certain. So whatever happens, through snow and snow melt, we’ll continue to look for pandemic pluses.

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

–Ode to the West Wind, Percy Bysshe Shelley

Epiphany 2020

Yesterday, January 6, was the twelfth and final day of Christmas. In the Christian calendar, it’s commemorated as the Feast of the Epiphany, marking the visit of the Magi to honor and worship the baby Jesus. Accordingly, our clothespin nativity now includes three richly dressed figures, accompanied by a fluffy and festively adorned camel. The biblical account reveals little about the identity of these visitors. They’re described as “wise men from the East,” likely astrologers, as they were led by a star to Bethlehem and the home of the holy family (Matthew 2:1-12). Their offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh attest to their substantial wealth. Because of their Eastern origins, they were probably not Jews. Some sources suggest that they could have been priests of the Zoroastrian religion, widely practiced throughout Persia. Their inclusion in the nativity story serves to demonstrate that the baby Jesus was sent by God to be a savior not only for the Hebrew people, but for all nations. The first to arrive on the scene of the holy birth could not have been more different from the Magi. They were the shepherds, lowly Jewish locals who received a direct invitation from an angel. Thus, the message is clear: the divine child was sent for the good of every one of us. For people of all societal levels, poor and rich, servant and king, near and far. May those of us who profess to be Christians do our best to extend the message of Epiphany, and the message of God’s love, to all our brothers and sisters.

*************************************************************************

This post was delayed by a day because yesterday I was transfixed, like people the world over, by images of a mob storming our nation’s Capitol. Ironically, this attempt to subvert our democratic process was carried out by supporters directly incited by the “Law and Order” president. A pastor friend of mine has referred to the calamitous events of the day as the “Epiphany Riots.” I join her in hoping that the sight of these disturbing images might prompt at least some Americans toward an epiphany* of their own.

*According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, an epiphany is a “usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”

Oh, Christmas trees, 2020

This year’s peculiar pandemic Christmas season has been lacking (and lackluster) in too many ways. But it also brought about a return to some activities that I thought might have been largely confined to the past. In an earlier post, I wrote about how my daughter and I, home bound together in the family pod, were inspired to make a new type of Christmas ornament for the first time in years. It wouldn’t be right to consign our Band of Bulbs to a table or shelf. They needed an appropriate home for the holiday, as did our creations from years gone by. They needed a Christmas tree. No. Not just one. If all were to be accommodated, several trees were required. My daughter was adamant about this.

Last year I didn’t find the time or energy to put up the tabletop tree in our playroom. I’ve been known to grumble that this slightly bedraggled tree’s ideal location is a crowded corner of our messy basement. But this tree is particularly dear to my daughter’s heart. It’s the locus for most of the ornaments of her childhood, many of which we made together, such as bread-dough clay snowflakes, stars and candy canes, awkward wrapping paper angels, and little drums of felt and spools. It’s the place for decorations that she bought, with her own money, each December at her elementary school’s holiday book fair. Its base provides the perfect spot for a gathering of stuffed animals consigned to the attic for the rest of the year. It sets the room warmly aglow with its multicolored lights. Once fully decorated, I have to admit that it’s a wonderfully cheery sight. And when positioned in a corner just so, its pronounced slant is barely noticeable.

We hadn’t put up a tree in my mother’s house next door since her relocation to Virginia three years ago. Again, with time on her hands and a general absence of social activities, my daughter took the lead. Nana’s house, she insisted, must have a tree. Wasn’t there one lying forlorn, in pieces, in the basement? It’s been eleven years, when we spent Christmas in Atlanta, since she’d seen the ornaments my parents and I had collected and crafted over the years, the ones I remember so well from my childhood. Even the hand-written, idiosyncratic labels on the boxes bring me smiles and vivid recollections: Handmade Fancy Balls. Santa Makings. Big Red Balls. Angels & Rudolfs. So it was a special pleasure to unpack these vintage treasures again with my daughter, as Mama and I recounted the stories of Christmases past that they prompted.

Even some of the smallest of trees were decked out in lights and baubles this year at my mother’s.

Back at our house, the three skinny alpine trees in the dining room serve as the setting for most of our cork and pinecone people, pasta angels, Cape Cod scallop shell angels, and now our Bulb Buddies.

The big tree in our living room was the last to go up. We decorated it over a period of nearly a week. No ornament, even those that were damaged or funny-looking, was left out this season. Each one found a place on the tree. I bought no new decorations at all this year. None, indeed, were needed.

The boxes of holiday trappings stored at my mother’s house and mine would likely be considered mere clutter by many. But to me, to my daughter, my mother, and to some degree, even to my husband, these battered containers are filled not with stuff, but with happy memories. They spark joy. And joy has been elusive and fleeting throughout 2020. Let’s seize it, and savor it, where, when, and while we’re able.

I wrote about some of the best-loved ornaments on the family Christmas tree of my childhood in several posts from 2015. See:

Childhood Treasures on the Christmas Tree

Vintage Pinecone Elves on Skis

Uncle Edwin’s Silver Stocking

Unsilvered WW II-Era Ornaments on a Kentucky Cedar

Christmas Eve 2020

In the absence of a live nativity at our church this Christmas Eve in the time of Covid, I cannot offer my usual photos of curious onlookers mingling happily with the sweet-tempered camels Samson or Delilah. Or with their other charming cohorts, the brown burro, the velvet-coated humpback ox, the several sheep or goats.

Here instead is this little clothespin nativity that my daughter and I made together many years ago. Simple and humble, made from materials we already had, it seems especially appropriate this Christmas Eve. It points toward what’s important, what’s essential, on this night and every night. The message of Christmas is, in one word, love. Love embodied in a baby. A baby sent by God to grow up and model love not only to his human contemporaries, but to all future generations. The message is so powerful that it remains as vital today as it was 2,000 years ago.

It’s the love that mingles the divine and the human. It’s the love that shines in the darkness. And the darkness, including the darkness of a pandemic, will not overcome it.

For more on the Christmas message of love (and for photos of our live nativity friends), see last year’s post: The Timeless Message of Christmas Eve.

With Time at Home, a return to Christmas crafting

During my daughter’s younger years, she and I continued the tradition of making Christmas ornaments that my mother and I had begun in my childhood. (See Working Like Elves, and Next-Generation Elves, both from December 2011.) It’s been quite a while since D and I have created a new ornament, but with the unusual circumstances of this holiday season, the conditions were conducive for at-home crafting again.

In a long-forgotten handmade box among the Christmas decorations at my mother’s house, we found brightly colored vintage bulbs and various other odds and ends. Amidst the jumble were toothpick and pipe-cleaner arms from two of our past creations, the pinecone and cork people.

Cork and pinecone people, among pasta angels and Cape Cod shell angels.

My daughter and I had the same idea at once: Christmas bulb beings. Equipped with a newly uncovered box of miscellaneous ornament makings from Mama’s basement, we spent several happy hours, much as in Yuletide days of yore, working together at the playroom table. (We spent additional time attempting to remove Superglue from our fingers.)

Our new group of Christmas characters includes several with wooden beads for heads, like these red and green twins in acorn caps and sparkly pipe-cleaner scarves. . .

. . .and this royal-looking girl with gold accessories.

There is one apple-headed figure. My daughter enjoys the surrealist touch.

A pom-pom headed boy in a straw hat carries two miniature Christmas ornaments.

A cowboy in a black hat holds a lasso. There’s room in our bulb bunch for all types.

We made a few angels with wings of silk flower petals or glitter-covered card stock.

The bulb beings appear to be settling in well with their fellow ornaments. They owe their existence to the pandemic. Another Covid silver lining. The biggest, for me, of course, is having our daughter here for an extended stay. May you and your family find special blessings during this most peculiar holiday season.

Deck the Tree stump (2013) + Update (2020)

In 2013 I wrote a post about decorating the tree stump at the edge of our front yard with a Christmas wreath. In the course of seven years, the stump has changed substantially, as most of us have. I didn’t hang the wreath the past two years, but this year it seemed fitting to do so. The original post appears immediately below, followed by the current update.

Deck the Tree Stump (2013)

This December, we hung a big wreath on the craggy silver maple stump in front of our house.  It seemed like an interesting, if unexpected, spot for a wreath.  And by decorating the tree, we could send a message to those who might see it as a business opportunity, as well as to those who think the stump is unsightly and wonder why we leave it standing.  The wreath says, We love this old tree trunk, and we’re letting nature take its course.

Then I thought a little more about it, and the pairing struck me as even more appropriate in its juxtaposition of life and death.  The stump is the opposite of the traditional evergreen Christmas tree.  Firs and spruces, retaining the appearance of vitality through the winter, get the privilege of being cut down, hauled into our homes, strung with lights and ornaments, and left to wither and die.  It’s tough work, being a symbol.  Our maple, though, would be in no such danger.  If intact, it would be gray-brown and leafless by now, like its neighbors in our yard.  But of course, it’s a stump, a snag, and already dead.  Yet it harbors vast, unseen colonies of creatures that go about the business of breaking down lifeless material.  It won’t be long before nature’s course is run.  The stump may not be here next year; its center is soft.  All the more reason to decorate it this year.

My husband and daughter hung the wreath one weekend afternoon, as I was napping, trying to get over a persistent cold.  When I trudged out to the road to see their handiwork, a new insight hit me.

I like to think that God works with us for good, despite ourselves, despite our selfish intentions and our vanity.  I initially wanted to decorate the tree because I thought it would look pretty, if a bit odd.  In truth, it was a way of declaring a certain pride in being different, in having the ability to see beauty where others see ugliness.

But once up, the wreath reminded me of a greater truth, of the essence of my Christian faith.  Out of death comes new, transformed life. How better to say it than in the words of John 3: 16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And then the snow settled beautifully on the wreath and the tree, on the green and the gray, on the quick and the dead, like a blessing from above.

Update: The Remains of the Stump (2020)

The stump lasted far longer than I expected. But nature, human error, and cars have taken their toll. It’s in a vulnerable spot, close to the narrow road, on a particularly sharp turn that’s proven problematic for drivers time and time again. Several years ago one May morning we were awakened around dawn by a policeman at our door. He asked if that was our vehicle outside. “What vehicle?,” I heard my husband ask in a confused tone, after he’d finally made his way downstairs to the door.

“The one in the tree.”

“What?”

And sure enough, it appeared that a dark minivan had merged with the tree. While most of the stump remained, it must have been considerably weakened, as its decline soon accelerated.

Two summers ago while we were away on vacation, a little red Honda found its way quite forcefully into the stump, demolishing half of it. The section that remained no longer looked much like a tree, or even a stump. When that final piece gradually eased to the ground one day this fall, we barely noticed. Why not, one might ask, remove it, at this point? One answer is that, even as a pile of debris, it serves as a barrier for future wayward vehicles.

Last week, returning from a walk with the dog, I surveyed the battered remains of the once mighty silver maple. It, with five others, was planted the same year that our house was built, in 1920. (See The Silver Maples Say Welcome Home, April 2012.) Several large patches of ruffled pale green lichen had sprouted from the decaying wood. Even in its final stages, the tree continues to serve as evidence of the circle of life. (See Underfoot, and Easily Overlooked. . . October 18, 2013.) I thought of the big wreath hanging neglected behind the hockey nets in the garage. Why not, during this Covid Christmas season, decorate the vestiges of the tree as it’s in the process of transformation? The wreath on the ruins is, to me, a reminder that hope does indeed remain. We can have hope in human ingenuity and resilience during the darkest of times, proof of which is offered by, among other achievements, the development of highly effective Covid vaccines in record time. We can have hope in a divine and loving parent, who created not only maple tree and lichen, but also each one of us human children, unique in our blend of talents, strengths, weaknesses and inconsistencies. We were created for a life that increases in abundance as we love one another and rejoice in our differences. We were created for an abundant life that transcends the boundaries of this flawed and fantastic earthly realm.

. . .and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out on us through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

–Romans 5:5

At Church, Blue-taped Pews with a side of humor

Due to the pandemic, our church has not held in-person worship since mid-February. Back then, we thought we’d be gathering again in our sanctuary after a few months, at the most. Certainly by the summer. Now, nearly ten months later, weekly worship continues online. Thanks to dedicated, tech-savvy staff and volunteers, the quality improves weekly. We’ve had several drive-in services, with the pastor and music leaders outside, distanced from one another, and congregants in their cars. Our only inside events have been a few small memorial services. As I said in an earlier post (I Wanna be Sedated, October 21, 2020), our congregation has suffered some tragically sudden and unexpected losses this year. At these indoor services, health protocols mandated by our bishop are followed diligently. Attendance is limited to twenty-five, and seating is distanced, with every other pew marked off with blue tape. Masks, of course, are required.

When I recently accompanied my daughter to record her scripture reading and advent candle lighting for an upcoming virtual service, it was our first time inside the church in months. I hadn’t much thought about what I expected our sanctuary, set up for distanced seating, to look like. So I was surprised when we found ourselves laughing.

Every blue-taped pew bore a sign that gently and humorously declared it to be off-limits.

This one might be especially appreciated by our Jewish friends.

I’m glad to be part of a church that finds a thoughtful way to take a light-hearted approach to a serious situation. I’m grateful that my church is taping off pews and modeling the importance of masking. I’m thankful to belong to a congregation that understands and values this vitally important truth: in keeping our distance and wearing a mask, we’re showing love to our neighbors during these anxious and uncertain days.

As we prepare for Christmas, let’s remember that in living out God’s love, a different set of rules applies in this most unusual of Advent seasons. We church folks have often heard fellow congregants, when faced with the prospect of change, make this protest: But we’ve always done it this way! In 2020, and well into 2021, as the vaccine roll-out progresses, we’re called to do things differently. God is calling us to do so. Let’s keep the faith, and not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.

Redeemer, come, with us abide; our hearts to thee we open wide;

let us thy inner presence feel; thy grace and love in us reveal.

–Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates

Words: Georg Weissel, 1642; trans. by Catherine Winkworth, 1855 (Psalm 24)

Music: Psalmodia Evangelica, 1789

Scenes from a Covid Winter Snow

The first snow of the season arrived yesterday. The flakes started out fat and fluffy, blanketing everything quickly in white. Even during a global health emergency, a mid-December snow is beautiful. Christmas-card worthy images of red, white and green abounded: cardinals on frosted evergreen branches, nandina and holly topped with snow.

In an ordinary year, our daughter might not have been home yet for winter break from the University of Virginia. But because of the pandemic, she’s been here since before Thanksgiving. As her social life has been drastically curtailed, a walk in the snowy neighborhood with her mother held far greater appeal than in years past. Her presence during this time has indeed been, for me, the best of Covid silver linings.

After a few hours, the snow turned to sleet, then to freezing rain, as it so often does here in Northern Virginia. Branches, foliage and berries were heavily coated in a layer of ice.

This morning, both porch doors and every outside gate were frozen shut. It was a perilous endeavor to walk from our house to my mother’s next door. Yet the sun shone brightly on each treacherous surface. Ice-glazed red berries and deep green leaves gleamed even merrier in the light.

But the perfect image of our Covid winter may be this: clinging to the tips of spiky brown branches of a dying evergreen, the oblong beads of ice, looking for all the world like frozen teardrops.

December 16, 2020 was our deadliest day of the pandemic yet, with 3,656 lives lost to Covid-19 in the US. The total number of American deaths from the virus approaches 310,000.

A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.