Alfred asked me to write this blog for Good Friday in the series of reflections for the season of Lent. I reluctantly agreed because I view Lent in the same way as the coming of a new year; I don’t make New Year resolutions, and I have never given up anything during Lent. Instead, I view it as a time to take on reflection and anticipation of good to come.
I don’t remember hearing the word Lent until I was in high school. In the little Methodist church that my grandmother Eunice established and where all 40 members were at least distantly related, there were three holy seasons: Easter, Christmas and Mother’s Day. Granny Eunice loved the fact that she would always win the white rose corsage given to the oldest mother at the Mother’s Day service. Ash Wednesday, Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc. didn’t exist in our church even though Lent is officially observed by the Methodist denomination.
I am writing this piece as the dogwood trees come into full bloom. You surely know the flowers of the dogwood; it’s the State Flower of Virginia. Their flowers are cruciform, in the shape of a cross. The flowers of the native species (Cornus florida) has four whitish bracts with notched tips that are dull red, and the true flowers are a cluster of yellowish green nodules in the center.
Perhaps you have heard the story of the dogwood that was told to me by my dad on an Easter morning when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. I remember his words as if it were yesterday. As the story goes, the cross upon which Jesus was crucified was wood from a large, sturdy dogwood tree. God then rewarded (or cursed, depending on the story teller) the large, sturdy dogwood tree to shrink and forevermore grow as a weak, short tree. It could never again be made into a cross. Furthermore, its flowers were altered to take the shape of the cross, and the notched tips are dull red to indicate the blood on Jesus that seeped from the nail wounds on his hands and feet and from the thorns that pierced his head.
The dogwood myth reminds us of the spring renewal of nature that occurs alongside the coming of Easter Sunday. In spite of the pollen and allergic symptoms, I love the spring season the most. The emerging burgundy sprouts and greenish yellows on emerging foliage are just as delightful to me as the most beautiful camellia, azalea or cherry tree in all their glory. As a little child and teenager I reluctantly worked in my parents’ vegetable garden, vowing never to do it again once I escaped my term as indentured servant! However, in my thirties, after buying my first home with a mostly dead landscape and lawn that resulted from a winter in Nashville that hit record lows, I began to plant.
Thirty-seven years later I’m still planting. As my spouse will tell you, I can be observed in late March and early April standing motionless, gazing at an empty flowerbed. When will the first stalks of the peony poke through the mulch? What are those cicadas in their 17-year suspended animation dreaming of? How much have the voles eaten?
My focus on gardening has shifted. It is no longer just about tending my garden. It’s now about helping others enjoy gardening. I became a Henrico Master Gardener upon retiring in 2012. Master Gardeners are volunteers that help bring expertise in gardening to others. My Maundy Thursday “worship” will be at a Methodist church but the “service” will be me speaking to beekeepers about gardening with native plants.
So let’s go back to the story of the lovely dogwood tree. The reality is that it could not have been the tree used for the crucifixion because study of fossilized plant materials indicate that, while all 120 species of dogwood trees have existed in their present form for millions of years, none ever grew in the Middle East. Many early Christians claimed to have pieces of the original cross—so many that John Calvin, founder of our Presbyterian tradition, said, “If we could gather all the pieces of the true cross (to reconstruct it), we would need a very large ship to move it.” Whether authentic or not, those fragments would reveal that Roman crosses were made from pine trees. Maybe there was the smell of turpentine at Golgotha that Friday?
The story of the dogwood tree, even though science has proved that it cannot be true, remains a lovely reminder of God’s grace on this Good Friday and the hope we have that life follows death just as surely as spring follows the winter.
GPPC Elder Steve Sawyer is retired from VCU as a Professor of Pharmacology. He and Beverly lived briefly in Ohio before happily (for us!) returning to the Richmond area. If you would like to contribute a reflection to our blog, please reach out to Alfred Walker – at church or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .