A Christmas Paradox: Fresh Born and Cross-Blessed

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As once a Child was planted in a womb
(and later, erected on a hill, a wooden cross)
one year we dug a hole to plant a tree.
Our choice, a Cornus Kousa with its fine,
pink, four-petaled bracts, each curving lip
touched with a red as deep as human blood.
It rooted well, and every year it grows
more glorious, bursting free in Spring—bud
into full flower, flame-colored, flushed as wine.
Even the slim sapling’s roughened bark
speaks of that tree, nail-pierced and dark.
Now, each new year, fresh blossoms shine
radiant, and each cross-blessed,
as if all love and loveliness has been compressed
into a flower’s face, fresh as the Son’s
new-born presence, a life only just begun.

The dogwood leaves turn iron red in Fall,
their centers fully ripening—into small seeded balls,
each one a fruit vivid as Mary’s love, and edible.
The sciontree, once sprung from Jesse’s root,
speaks pain and life and love compressed
and taken in, eye, mouth, heart. Incredible
that now all Eucharists in our year suggest
the living Jesus is our Christmas guest.
~Luci Shaw “Dogwood Tree” from 
Eye of the Beholder

 

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God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment.
No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer from God Is in the Manger

 

 

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Today we celebrate the paradox of Christ, the Son of God, coming to the world through the womb of a woman, born homeless in order to bring us home with Him.

The uncontainable contained
the infinite made finite
the Deliverer delivered
the Eternal dwelling here and now,
already here but not yet.

We, the children of the Very God of Very God,
are cross-blessed to know He is found, fresh-born, beside us.
We have only to look, listen and taste.

 

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Turn Aside and Look: You Cover It All

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The cup and the loaf
You beckon me close
to commune
Like fruit on the vine
crushed into wine
You were bruised
Broken and torn
crowned with scorn
Poured out for all

Chorus:
All my sin
All my shame
All my secrets
All my chains
Lamb of God
Great is your love
Your blood covers it all

I taste and I drink
You satisfy me
With your love
Your goodness flows down
and waters dry ground
like a flood
Let mercy rain
Saving grace
Poured out for all

My sin, not in part
You cover it all,
You cover it all
Not in part,
But the whole
You cover it all,
You cover it all
It’s nailed to the cross.
You cover it all
You cover it all
And I bear it no more
You cover it all.
~Allie LaPointe and David Moffitt

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On this Maundy Thursday
we are called to draw near Him,
to gather together among the
hungry and thirsty
to the Supper He has prepared
even though we are full of thorns
that will pierce and make Him bleed.

He washes the dirt off our feet;
we look away, mortified.
He serves us from Himself;
we fret about whether
we are worthy.

We are not.

Starving and parched,
grimy and weary,
hardly presentable
to be guests at His table,
we are made worthy
only because
He has made us so.

He’s covered us,
despite our thorny exteriors,
entirely.

 

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Preparing the Heart: From Creche to Cross

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Detail from “Descent from the Cross” by Rogier van der Weyden

The whole of Christ’s life was a continual passion;
others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr.
He found a Golgotha, where he was crucified,
even in Bethlehem, where he was born;
for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after,
and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last.
His birth and his death were but one continual act,
and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but
the evening and the morning of one and the same day.
From the creche to the cross is an inseparable line.
Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter.
It can have no meaning apart from that,
where the Son of God displayed his glory by his death.

~John Donne –opening words in his sermon on Christmas Day 1626

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It is easy to hear of a baby in a wooden manger laid there by overwhelmed first-time parents far from home, surrounded by soft-eyed farm animals and adoring raggedy shepherds who reported hearing glorious singing angels.

It is not at all easy to hear of the slaughter of innocent children by a paranoid king in response to that baby, knowing in our hearts and feeling in our guts the desperation of the wailing grieving mothers.

It is much harder to fathom this baby, three decades later, as a grown man, flogged and bleeding, hanging from a wooden cross surrounded by mocking soldiers, his weeping mother and friends, and two crucified criminals.  This is much much more than we bargained for — this from a baby asleep in the hay.

Instead of the heavenly host declaring his glory, he himself spoke words of forgiveness and grace with his last breaths, making clear his death, as well as his birth, was no mistake, but one continual act of God’s glorious salvage of his children.

He makes clear a willingness to wear our skin and walk in our sandals, in order to die in our place.   Our own birth and our death are no mistakes either.

He claims us; we shall know his voice when he calls our name.

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The Scars of Living and Dying

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Scars come in various sizes and shapes, some hidden, some quite obvious to all.  How they are inflicted also varies–some accidental, others therapeutic, and too many intentional.  The most insidious are the ones so deep inside,  no one can see or know they are there.

Back in our woodlot stands a sawed off stump of a cedar that was old growth in virgin forest over a hundred years ago.  One day the clearcut loggers came through our part of this rural county and took every tree they could to haul to the local sawmills to become beams and lumber for the growing homesteading population in the region.  This cedar once was grand and vast, covering an immense part of the forest floor, providing protection to trillium at its feet and finches’ nests and raptors hunting in its branches.   It nurtured its environment until other plans were made, and one day, axes fell on its sides to cut out the notches for the springboards where two loggers stood to man the saw which brought the tree down.  Where the wood went is anyone’s guess.  It could be one of the mighty beams supporting our old hay barn roof or it could have become the foundation flooring of a nearby one room school house.  It surely had a productive and meaningful life as part of a structure somewhere until rot or carpenter ants or fire brought it once again to its knees.

But the stump remains, a tombstone of remembrance of a once grand tree, the notch scars embedded deep in its sides, nursing new seedlings from its center and moss, lichen and ferns from its sides.

I come from logger stock so I don’t begrudge these frontier settlers their hard scrabble living, nor minimize their dangerous work in order to feed themselves and their families.  It’s just I’m struck by those scars even one hundred years later — such a visible reminder of what once was a vital living organism toppled for someone’s need and convenience.

Trees are not unique.  It happens to people too.  Everyday scars are inflicted for reasons hard to justify.  Too often I see them self-inflicted in an effort to feel something other than despair.  Sometimes they are inflicted by others out of fear or need for control.

Sometimes they are simply the scars of living, wounds accumulated along the pathway we tread, often to letting in Light where there was none before.

None of them are as deep and wide as the scars that were accepted on our behalf, nor as wondrous as the love that oozed from them, nor as amazing as the grace that abounds to this day because of the promise spelled out by them.  These are scars from the Word made Flesh.

As a result, that Tree lives.

 

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loggers standing on springboards wedged into a large fir (courtesy of Campbell River Museum, British Columbia)

Between Midnight and Dawn: The Mystery of the Cross

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Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—
in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
 
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality,
then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?

    Where, O death, is your sting?”
1 Corinthians 15: 51-55

 

The void of God and the love of God come together in the mystery of the cross.
~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss

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There is no event so commonplace
but that God is present within it,
always hiddenly,
always leaving you room to recognize Him
or not…

Listen to your life.

See it for the
fathomless mystery that it is.

In the boredom and pain of it no less
than in the excitement and gladness:
touch, taste, smell your way to the
holy and hidden art of it
because in the last analysis
all moments are key moments…..

and Life itself is Grace.
~Frederick Buechner from Now and Then- Listening to Your Life

 

May I accept what I cannot know and cannot understand;
it will remain mystery until it is revealed in His time.

Until then I am tempted to assumption, speculation, and doubt,
accepting the void of God rather than experiencing His love first hand.

The mystery is worth the often intolerable wait, once the final page is turned and His last Words spoken from the cross: It is finished.

 

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Between Midnight and Dawn: Keep Asking

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Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
John 20: 27-28

 

While Faith is with me, I am blest;
It turns my darkest night to day;
But while I clasp it to my breast,
I often feel it slide away.

What shall I do, if all my love,
My hopes, my toil, are cast away,
And if there be no God above,
To hear and bless me when I pray?

Oh, help me, God! For thou alone
Canst my distracted soul relieve;
Forsake it not: it is thine own,
Though weak, yet longing to believe.
~Anne Bronte from “The Doubter’s Prayer”

 

I think there is no suffering greater than
what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe.

I know what torment this is, but I can only see it,
in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened.
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs.
They think faith is a big electric blanket,
when of course it is the cross.
It is much harder to believe than not to believe.
If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this:
keep an open mind.
Keep it open toward faith,
keep wanting it,
keep asking for it,
and leave the rest to God.
~Flannery O’Connor from The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

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On my doubting days, days too frequent and tormenting,
I remember the risen Christ
reaching out to place Thomas’ hand in His wounds,
gently guiding Thomas to His reality,
so it becomes Thomas’ reality.
His open wounds called
to Thomas’ mind and heart,
His flesh and blood
awakening a hidden faith
by a simple touch.

 

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Listening to Lent — The Bud of the Wood

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O Deus, ego amo te,
O God I love Thee for Thyself
Nec amo te ut salves me,
and not that I may heaven gain
Nec quod qui te non diligent,
nor yet that they who love Thee not
Æterno igne pereunt.
must suffer hell’s eternal pain.

Ex cruces lingo germinat,
Out of the bud of the wood of the Cross
Qui pectus amor occupant,
wherefore hearts’ love embraces
Ex pansis unde brachiis,
whence out of extended arms
Ad te amandum arripes. Amen.
you lovingly take us. Amen.
~Prayer of St. Francis Xavier  “O Deus Ego Amo Te” 18th Century Traditional

Suddenly, in the last week, buds are forming everywhere.
From seemingly dead wood, standing cold and dormant,
there springs new life.
What could be more lifeless than a cross piece of timbers
built specifically for execution?
Yet life sprung from that death tree,
an unexpected and glorious bud,
ready to burst into most fragrant blossom.