Although it has not happened since 1913, and won't happen again till 2008, Easter can come as early as March 23, just barely inside the official limits of spring. But whether Holy Week falls in March or April makes little difference in Texas. It's always springtime here by then.
People like the dogwood to be in full bloom for Good Friday. They like to point out to one another how the dogwood's white blossom, shaped like an ivory Maltese cross, each point dented and tinged with red, is an emblem of Christ's crucifixion wounds. They even send one another greeting cards bearing the so-called Legend of the Dogwood, which links the tree with the wood used for the cross.
The dogwood trees are usually blooming at about the same time I teach college sophomores the Housman poem that begins,
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Most of my students have never seen cherry trees in bloom. The Texas weather is too mild and genial for the cherry's hearty nature, so I rely on the dogwood tree to furnish them with a reasonable facsimile of Housman's vision. The decorative dogwood chooses to display its white blossoms along the highways precisely when they will be the most conspicuous—before their own leaves unfurl and before the other, taller trees have put on their new leaves. Thus, the shadowy recesses of the winter-bare forests provide the perfect background for the white blossoms.
The only rival to the dogwood's ostentation during Holy Week is the redbud, also known as "the Judas tree." Most flowering trees bloom only from the tips of their twigs, but the redbud's small, purplish pink blossoms pop out all over its smooth, silvery skin, even directly from the branches and the trunk. A popular horticulturist calls the redbud "the colorful doll of our hardwood forests" and compares its flowers to "little dancing shoes."
People in this part of Texas consider a perfect Holy Week one in which the dogwood's dramatic appearance exactly overlaps the redbud's rouging of the Texas roadsides with its smudges of pink. And as if the native flowering trees weren't enough, bluebonnets smear across acres of pastureland like mosaics of lapis lazuli, punctuated by saffron Indian paintbrush.
They are very beautiful, these blossom-laden trees and fields of blowing flowers, heartbreakingly beautiful. And I have plenty of opportunity to have my heart broken as I drive twice a week to the university, 60 miles away. The little two-lane highway dips and twists over creeks and around farms that used to grow cotton but now are grazed by crossbred cattle.
Some of the descendants of the people who used to pick the cotton still live along this road or in the tiny towns of Shiro and Roan's Prairie. Their decrepit houses lean and gape at the surrounding woods and fields. They stay, the people who live in these hungry houses, because they are tied to the dogwood and redbud, just as surely as they were once tied to the cotton. Every spring they wait for the dogwood's appearing, and its glory, sudden and stunning, gets them through another year. So they stay on in their obliquely slanting houses, sustained by social security or ADC checks, rather than move to the city.
I suppose I'm one of the few people who actually like Lent. I like it in the same way I like throwing away last year's student essays and clearing out my file cabinets. During Lent some deep crack opens in my soul, down which I like to shovel the dirt and debris that has accumulated over the year. The sly self-deceptions, the dogged willfulness, the witless pain I've left in my wake that I've been too busy to notice or repair. From back in February, before the blooming starts, 40 days always looks like little enough time for this task. The penitential season is for clearing away accumulated garbage, and I usually set to work with a will.
But three years ago, late in March, I was driving to work in College Station on Good Friday through a miasma of dogwood and redbud and not feeling good about it at all. It was a sparkling, resplendent day. Thickets of wild plum threw up their dark arms in dreamy clouds of white. Primroses, tenderly pink and gold, filled up the ditches along the road.
I was not pleased. This was not a penitential landscape. Good Friday is not the time for beauty.
Yet here I was on my way to teach a bunch of 19-year-olds—most of whose minds were undefended by dogma, half of whom probably had no idea what Good Friday was all about—a poem that told them they should have their socks knocked off by the ersatz cherry trees blooming all about them. They were probably a good deal more concerned at present with their own hormones than the beauties of the woodland ride. But was converting them from hedonists to aesthetes any improvement?
I drove along, vaguely offended by the fields of flowers in full cry and the hillsides spangled with Easter white. This is the week, I thought, the Savior of the world dies. This is the day when all that is good and true goes down to suffer death at the hands of the arrogant, those swollen with the pride of power. And what is the world doing? What is the earth, its own life threatened by those same enemies, doing? Did it care? Was it grieving? No. It was shouldering aside the clods and the husks of its dead self in order to break into life. This unseemly riot had been going on for at least five days, in fact, ever since Palm Sunday—a term that sounded almost pagan itself. Another tree, another symbol of life had been flaunted in the face of suffering and death on that day, too.
As I watched the land roll by, it was as though this week, this so-called holy week, and this day, this tragically good Friday, were being mocked by the triumph of a fickle and unregarding life—life heedlessly, ruthlessly springing forth with relish, ignoring the torn placenta, the shriveling umbilical cord. Life ignoring the violated flesh and choked-off breath to which it owed its very existence, winking at the blood and muck from which it rose. Disregarding the cost.
I started up the range of hills that form the watershed of the Navasota River, glad to leave the flagrant fields behind me for a while. Dark pines rise up beside the highway there, shading out the understory trees and making vertical walls through which the road cuts toward Carlos, a community of itinerant coal miners who work in shifts for the regional power plant.
This was what Good Friday should be like, I thought. Somber and stripped. And here among the austere pines I could concentrate on what this day was about, could consider my own part in this necessary Good Friday.
All week I had been reading the penitential psalms and examining my sins. The exercise had been a satisfying one since my sins were clear and undeniable, and what was required of me to be rid of them was just as clear.
But now it was Good Friday. What did you do after you'd confessed all your sins and cleaned out all your closets? I took one last look around the bare cell of my heart for some forgotten fault, at the same time being careful to avoid the danger of manufacturing contrition for its own sake. Scruples, the small, sharp stones that score an overactive conscience, can also lead to the sin of self-indulgence, I knew.
But what else was there to do on Good Friday? Already, on this spring morning, as I was descending the hills toward the river, Jesus was beginning his climb to Golgotha. What else was there to do? For the women who followed him, "looking on afar off," for those standing beneath the cross, what was there left to do?
Nothing. Quite obviously just nothing. The soldier who confessed, "Truly this man was the Son of God," and the one who pierced his Savior's side with the spear, both were equally helpless there, I suddenly saw. Because Good Friday is the day when you can do nothing. Bewailing and lamenting your manifold sins does not in itself make up for them. Scouring your soul in a frenzy of spring cleaning only sterilizes it; it does not give it life. On Good Friday, finally, we are all, mourners and mockers alike, reduced to the same impotence. Someone else is doing the terrible work that gives life to the world. Good Friday is the day we can do nothing at all.
No matter that I repudiated my old transgressions. On Good Friday, all one's fine feelings count for nothing. If there was to be anything new about life after today, it had to come from some source beyond myself. That is why there was nothing more to do on Good Friday. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. His blood and his righteousness.
I passed the intersection at Carlos with its one blinking, yellow light and crossed the bridge over the pipeline that carries the coal slurry to the plant a few miles further on. From there the road bent northward to cross the river.
As I broke out of the pines and into the fertile bottomland, the spring again assaulted me. The land below, emerging from the tendrils of morning fog, was a tangle of luxuriant fertility. Clouds of pink and white, effulgent enough to inebriate the soberest soul, lured one's line of vision into the darker trees. Acres of bluebonnets streaked up the red clay banks of the river. The earth, on this Good Friday, cast forth its life, heedless of the sacrifice that sustained it. Its callous, regardless life, sucked from the source it can never repay, never replenish. Continually drawing on the death of its Savior to live. Just like me.
This article originally appeared in the March 17, 1989 issue of Christianity Today.
Virginia Stem Owens is author of Daughters of Eve(NavPress) and Looking for Jesus (Westminster John Knox). She lives in Huntsville, Texas.
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