This article appears in our April issue of Connections, available here.
For nearly 40 days, we have shared in the season of Lent – the season that precedes Easter and calls us to prayer, contemplation, and preparation for the death and resurrection of Christ. Our Lent has been filled with images and moments profound and poignant, but one of the most telling for me occurred on the very first Sunday in the season.
On the First Sunday in Lent, our sanctuary itself transitions into the season, thanks to the careful work of our worship and visual arts leaders. In the middle of the sanctuary stands the cross and its constant reminder of our brokenness. Purple fabric – the color of repentance – is draped throughout our house of worship, including on the stoles that fall from the ministers’ shoulders. Our altar tables, normally adorned with colorful flowers, are marked sparsely with twigs, artfully arranged to simulate a wilderness space.
During our Children’s Time that first Sunday, Steve Sumerel asked the children to reflect on these differences. “What do you notice that’s different?” he asked. We anticipated comments on the fabric, the clergy robes, or the large and prominently placed cross. Instead, the first hand to shoot up pointed at the altar tables and cutting through it all said simply, “Uhh… the bushes are dead.”
Lent is just that stark and straightforward. We can present it artfully and carefully through worship and symbol, but the theme is that blunt: “The bushes are dead.” There is stark reality where there was once beauty. Bare branches are clustered where there was once life and color.
Our lives can be just that blunt, too. Most of us have experienced it in ways far more personal than the broad symbolism of the season. Some of us experience it even now. As a congregation, we mourn the loss of friends and loved ones who have meant so much to us. We surround others who are in the midst of health concerns, personal struggle, family pain and anxiety. Some things we’ve hoped for have not bloomed. Some things once beautiful have become sparse. Bare branches. Dead bushes. Brokenness and blunt reminders surround. Even the trees around the church grounds seem to have taken more time to bloom than normal, making us wonder when spring will finally come.
That’s why we who have lived through Lenten seasons chosen and unchosen are prepared so well for the transformative hope that is coming. It’s Easter where we remember that the worst thing is not the last. How stark is must have been on that Friday. All around were blunt reminders of loss, far more jarring than any artistic scene. A cross was in the middle of it all, and on it hung not symbolic fabric, but the body of one dearly loved and followed. All was lost and dead that day. There was no getting around it. There is no getting around it.
But notice that it’s the women – the ones who stayed at the cross the longest – who are the first to see the empty tomb. They had come simply to make arrangements. To make sure the body was safe and secure. They had come feeling lost and lifeless as they were starting to adjust to the reality of life without him. And then all those worst things were replaced with new life.
The other morning I was driving to the church. The previous day had been cold and dreary. It seemed the snow had just thawed as we waited for the vanished spring. But as I approached the church that morning, there were blooms on the pear trees. I hadn’t noticed them before, certainly not the day before. It was almost as if they had bloomed overnight. In an instant. Just like that.
Dead branches alive once again.