One recent night, there was a light snowfall, and in the morning, the trees wore a graceful covering of white. The tall trunks were dark against the gray-white light of early day, but the branches—from thick lower limbs to slender twigs—were dark underneath and gently frosted with snow on top. The sight of them was so beautiful that I drove to a local park and took photos.
Later, I spoke with my friend Vicki, who told me that she, too, had been moved by the scenery that morning and had taken photos of the trees in her yard. We both love trees, and we talked about their beauty and also about their symbolism for people of faith.
Vicki told me about her son Roger’s bar mitzvah service 20 years ago. It had taken place on the day of a Jewish festival, Tu B’Shevat, the “New Year of the Trees,” which marks the traditional day when trees in Israel awaken from their winter dormancy and return to life. By coincidence, Vicki and I were talking on the day when this year’s Tu B’Shevat would begin at sundown: Jan. 30.
Vicki shared a copy of the beautiful prayer service that she and her family compiled for Roger’s bar mitzvah. On the cover are these words: “The strength and vitality of a people, like that of a tree, lie in its roots…”
A wise observation, particularly at this time of year, when winter is half over. The trees still look pinched and lifeless, but soon their roots will awaken, the sap will surge, and the tips of the twigs will break out in buds. With the coming of spring, the branches that are now bare will be covered with blossoms.
I couldn’t help but think also of trees in relation to the season of Lent that we are beginning.
Trees hibernate in winter, and maybe we do, too. We still live our daily lives, of course, but we don’t get out as much, if only because of the weather. Snow and ice cause the cancellation of events or leave us unable to travel to where we wanted to be.
That makes winter a good time to do what Lent calls us to do: look inward and take stock. Like the tree under its coating of snow, we are not dead; we are very much alive. As the sap is inside the tree, ready to rise with the coming of spring, grace is within us, working in us, able to draw us closer to God and deeper into the mystery of his love for us. Unlike the sap inside the tree, grace doesn’t depend on a time or a season. To receive grace or to stir it up in our souls, all we have to do is ask, and then wait and pray.
As the words of Roger’s Bar Mitzvah service say, “The strength and vitality of a people, like that of a tree, lie in its roots.” Faith is the root that draws grace into our souls, and faith needs nourishment. Prayer feeds faith, and it is most effective when we pray in two ways: alone and with others, individually and at church. The Mass and the prayer services of Lent help us to reflect more fully on the life and teaching of Jesus, and on the meaning of his suffering and death. Praying the traditional Stations of the Cross, especially with others, helps us to unite ourselves more closely with Christ in his suffering, and to rejoice more fully with him in his triumph at Easter.
Through the ages, Christian poetry and art have presented the cross of Christ as the Tree of Life. Christ’s death on the cross is the sacrifice that redeemed the world; his resurrection is his promise to us of new life, of eternal life, with him.
Life in Christ is life transformed, and it begins now if we seek it. The trees of winter remind us that life is stirring even where it seems to be absent, and limbs that seem almost to shiver in the cold will soon bear buds and then blossoms. So can we.