On the Precipice of Lent

Grant, almighty God,
through the yearly observances of holy Lent,
that we may grow in understanding
of the riches hidden in Christ
and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.
Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

As we enter once more into the season of Lent, the Quadragesima or forty days, we prepare ourselves to ascend the holy mountain toward Easter. Our singing of the “Gloria” and “Alleluia” this past Sunday were the last we will hear until we emerge from the ark at the sacred Paschal Triduum. I have hung up my green dress shirt and moved it with my green ties to the back of the closet from whence they shall not emerge until June. Tomorrow we will be marked once more, smudged by ashes imposed on us. This year I once again find myself on this Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, known to most as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, one step removed from the visceral work of incinerating the palm branches blessed during last year’s triumphant entry on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.

But as I look down at my hands, prickled and scratched from the labor of the long weekend just past, I am no less prickled with the bodily nature of this Lenten season than ever my nose was with the acrid aroma of the cinders that remind us of our mortality. The sign at Kathy’s Corner, a local garden center, states that now is the right time to be pruning, now is the time to repair our lawns. Like Joel calling the assembly to return to the Lord or the Apostle Paul declaring that “now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (ii Corinthians 6:2), Kathy’s Corner is evangelizing, pointing out that all of creation is at this season calling us back to the garden, back to the ordered world in which God has placed us to thrive as his beloved. A couple of weeks ago I began beating back the blackberry brambles that encircle the perimeter of the property we’re renting on Vashon Island. Owing to the ever increasing hours of sunlight, the presently splendid weather for which I’m most grateful, and the gift of a three-day weekend, I took to clearing back some of the tallest and thorniest thicket that has been encroaching on the lower level of the house evidently for some years. I also found myself clearing out intertwined Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) which was scaffolding the blackberry and, like a pair of vices, preventing anything else from growing—or so it seemed. During the course of the clearing, tossing the deadwood over the edge of the steep back slope, and extracting the matted mess from trees, I came across apple trees—at least four of them. There are other apple trees on the property and we enjoyed harvesting them last summer and fall. But here were orphaned apple trees, sending out shoots, desperately seeking any light from amid the suffocating overgrowth of Himalayan Blackberries (Rubus armeniacus) and Scotch broom, both invasive species. In what is doubtless the deposit of some recent minor mudslide these plants and other small trees have taken root and grown unsightly, marring our view of Puget Sound. So with ax, loppers, chain and hand saws, rake, and garden fork, I have claimed back much of the embankment. I’m of course scratched and a little sore. The view, while still needing additional work, is indeed more beautiful on the whole though it has now laid bare what was previously hidden just beyond the shrubby wall.

In the midst of all this, as I tossed the chopped, dried, and broken berry stalks into the pit below and raked out overgrown broom from the strangled apple trees overhead, it all seemed just right for a Lenten meditation. Here in this season we too prune back what has been allowed to get overgrown in our hearts. With the labor of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving I accept those disciplines with which Christians have opened themselves to growth in Christ for millennia. By cutting out the thorny, brittle branches which still cause others to bristle rather see Christ when they encounter me, I am opened to real growth; by pulling out the dense, wooden stalks which choke and crowd out the fruit, I make room for new life, for pliable, new, fecund shoots; by removing the chaos which years of neglect has fostered, I open myself to new order to be gardened within and so bear fruit that will remain. Thus I experienced something more than mere happiness at discovering apple trees among the thickets this weekend. It was something of a return to Eden, akin to recognizing that the garden into which we have been placed and from which we’ve become alienated is a metaphor for the soul placed in the center of each of us. It needs tending, it needs to be pruned, allowed to fruit, replanted. We need to admit that it’s subject to decay but that it’s nature is enduring, eternal, longing for purity and order. So even as we look out at the flattened mass of beige detritus where once stood a somewhat green wall of entanglements, I have to have to hope that when the rains come again and it all grows that more than the view will be beautiful once more. Looking at the challenge of embracing the Lenten disciplines we must likewise be confident that the space we till will be a rich field for Christ if only we beat back the overgrowth. And ever there is the apple tree, no longer saying, “Do not eat,” but beckoning us toward Calvary, the Cross whereon Christ offers himself, saying with great hope in new life, “Unless you eat…”

Here’s to a Lent full of pruning away the deadwood for each of us as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of an Easter full of new life blossoming in the clearings.

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