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You are here: Articles > Liturgical Seasons > Lenten Wood, Easter Fire  Back one page.
Lenten Wood, Easter Fire
(New Oxford Review) March 1998

Fr. James Schmitmeyern

One day, when I was a child, I ran toward a tree I wanted to climb, then stopped suddenly to stare in disbelief at the giant thorns sprouting all over its trunk. This was my first sight of a locust tree. It was growing along a fencerow that my father was clearing that day at the back of our farm. Why God would ever create so sinister a tree was beyond my reckoning.

The thorns on a locust tree can be six inches long, with smaller thorns sprouting from the larger spikes. They grow in ghastly clusters all about the trunk of the tree and singly along the branches and twigs.

In the years since then, I have had to contend, as a woodsman, with the physical aspects of locust trees, but this first encounter was surpassingly theological, for my father, noticing my stunned reaction, laid aside his axe and pulled down a branch for my inspection. "These are dangerous thorns, " he said protectively. Then he added, "They're the kind that were used on Jesus."

They did indeed look like the pictures I had seen in our Bible. I nodded my agreement. My father then took his axe to the tree. As he swung at the trunk, I looked for a place to run when that wicked tree would give its final shudder and fall to the earth. I was happy when its thorns veered for the ground beneath a slow, creaking scream of defeat.

Since that time I have come to realize that the locust tree has some utilitarian value: Its wood is resistant to moisture and makes durable fence posts. I have also learned that the people of Appalachia call it the Jesus Tree. This ability to evoke the Passion is, for me, its most valuable quality.

I encounter the locust again each spring, early in Holy Week, when I make a trek to a wooded gully near my village to gather cedar for the Easter Vigil Fire. The gully has become for me a Lenten chapel, providing a day of recollection as the Triduum draws near.

This year I have come with a friend named Jake. His family owns the farm in which the gully lies. He walks ahead of me with a chain saw in hand and a maul over his shoulder. I carry an oilcan and a jug of fuel.

The outer edges of the gully are steep and crowded with locust trees. Soon the thorny trunks give way to thick underbrush which, like Lent itself, is difficult to negotiate. Finally, in the center, is the grove of cedars. Their lower branches are dead, brittle and grey, and extend horizontally from the trunks like hundreds of crosses. Along this journey, from thorns to crosses, long strands of berry bushes arc red and smooth like streams of blood. Despite my best efforts, stickers tear at my jeans and the skin on the backs of my hands.

As we enter the grove, Jake is talking about an article he has read on near death experiences. So we converse in serious tones. We speak about faith and science, endorphins and Resurrection. I am somewhat distracted, however, as I search for some wood that will ignite easily come Saturday night.

As we range among the fallen wood and living wood, the topic of death persists. I find myself reluctantly thinking of my mother and her recent passing.

She died in November, a few days before the Feast of Christ the King. As always in that closing season of the year, the readings spoke of the Last Things and of Christ Our Judge coming at the end of time.

For my mother, however, that final week was all mercy and grace. She experienced very little pain. There was no struggle or fear. Despite her peaceful death, the memories of that week continue to pierce me - the heaving of her chest, the feather-like weight of her hand, her final breath, the sound of our prayers for angels to greet her and martyrs to meet her - all of it as vivid and sharp as this spring day amid thorns and thickets and theological tangles.

At last, Jake and I come to a clearing where his father felled a cedar last summer. Jake says that the tree was dead when his father cut it down and should by now be seasoned enough to burn well on the night of the Vigil. I start the chain saw and begin trimming the branches. As I cut, the air fills with the scent of the aromatic wood. I kick away sections of the tree with my boot. The exposed core is a deep purple, like Lenten vestments, or in places a reddish pink, as if stained with blood.

As my saw tears hungrily into the wood, Jake's ungloved hands - farmer hands - pull the branches into a pile. He takes the maul and begins to split the scattered pieces of trunk.

He continues to chop as I turn off the saw and stand in the sudden quiet. I listen to the soothing knock of the maul against the wood, the crack of soft cedar splitting. The fragrance rises like incense, its sacrifice like the lifting up of hands, like the lifting up of the cross beam on Calvary.

I study my friend and admire his strength and his life. His friendship strengthens my faith like no other. He is Simon of Cyrene coming in from the fields. He is a carpenter and sower, a trapper and tiller, a husband and provider. Always at hand, always at work.

I am his friend and his pastor and the pastor of many who are like him, people of the country ? men, women, and children who are quiet and humble and devoted to Christ: the Christ who, in this Holy Week, will shoulder his cross and bleed in our liturgy, the gash in his side as red as opened cedar, his skin purple as Lenten cloth, his head torn by locust thorns.

I know I am on holy ground in this woods and in this community. I move among the people of my parish unworthily, washing their feet, anointing their hands and heads with oil, baptizing their young, burying their dead. I am their priest, their brother Abel, their tree-trimming Amos, their tent-making Paul.

Few priests are as privileged as I. I come from the same land as my parishioners. From the same forests our homesteads were cleared, our towns built, our churches constructed. My initials are carved in the beech trees here, I swam in the creeks beneath the spreading sycamores, our farms were interlocked, our families interrelated. Our hunting, our drinking, our fumbling are all the same - so much am I one of them.

Yet, in this Holy Week, we are joined even closer, joined like the grains of wood in the cross we touch and kiss on Good Friday. We will huddle together at the Easter Vigil on the night of Holy Saturday. Faces will glow with the yellow warmth of the Fire. There will be glances cast into the night sky, eyes of faith that somehow know that the Fire outside our darkened church burns brighter than all the stars of heaven. For on this night earth will exult and holy Church will resound with joy at the rising of Christ from the darkness of the tomb.

Each year we gather for these transforming rites. Each year Christ's own presence fills the holy night. Our souls are transfixed and our wounded Savior is transfigured. He is jubilant and muscular and fierce; thorn-pierced scalp and wood-scraped skin, his eyes reflecting the flames of our Fire.

I send up the cry, trembling, "Christ our Light!"

"Thanks be to God," they respond.
The crowd grows silent. The cedar crackles.
"Christ our Light!" I sing again.
"Thanks be to God!"

The chant rises to the trees and soon echoes in the church as we process inside. It drifts to the vaults of the ceiling and settles in the niches of the altars. In the night air inside the church it ruffles the cloak of the Risen One. He rises above us, silent and strong, breathing like the stallion in Job, his black eyes ablaze, a Champion.

The chanting caresses his wounds, and soon the ancient Scriptures are read, stories of water and tears, death and redemption. Soon our fingers, brown with blood, will reach for the water of the font, our eyes yearning to see eternal life glinting on its surface, our minds grasping its power to cleanse and renew, Christ's own power to bring forth from dead wood the ever-new, the ever-breathing life of God.

These are the mysteries we celebrate on a spring night when clouds float blue and grey across a full moon. The vigilant mysteries that press against our windows in the dark of night, the quiet peace beneath the mournful wind we hear in our trees.

For the Lord is here, risen indeed, risen in our land, in our towns, in our sheds, in our history and in our love. In the smell of cedar and the fragrance of incense. In the waters of baptism and rivers and lakes, in the relics of the dead and the songs of the saints: this Woodsman and Fanner, this Neighbor and Bridegroom, this Stallion, this Champion, this Priest, this Friend.

Fr. James Schmitmeyer is a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and Pastor of St. Louis Church in North Star, Ohio, and St. Nicholas Church in Osgood, Ohio.

Copyright © 1998 New Oxford Review. Reprinted with permission from the New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706).

You are here: Articles > Liturgical Seasons > Lenten Wood, Easter Fire  Back one page.

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You are here: Articles > Liturgical Seasons > Lenten Wood, Easter Fire  Back one page.

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All contents © copyright, 1998-2019
The Catholic Liturgical Library