The Snow Sermon

 

                               Grow old along with me!
                               The best is yet to be,
                               The last of life, for which the first was made:
                               Our times are in His hand
                               Who saith “A whole I planned,
                               Youth shows but half; trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”
                                      —from Robert Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”

“Barbara, the snow’s late this year.”

She looks up from her pie crust work. “Yes, it’s only five days ’til Thanksgiving.”

But today, the wind chills. Gazing out the window I’m surprised by the fine flakes falling here in Minnesota, hundreds of miles away from my California childhood.

Our first snow is inevitable but still a surprise. We turned the clocks back just two weeks ago (“spring ahead; fall back”), but today, less than a month from winter solstice, the sun appears tardily over the far end of the pond. It will rise in its low southern arc and set early.

We are the shrouded ones, billeted in carpentered cocoons. I belong to a bookish breed. We inhabit an indoor world full of the smell of classroom chalk, students to-ing and fro-ing in the halls, and all this experience seasoned with specialty coffee and good conversation. Even at home, my fingers rest on computer keys, pretending that the seasons never change.

The seasons never changed in the California of my childhood with its palms, eucalyptus, magnolia and orange trees. But today the Minnesota sun hangs low on the horizon and the spruce branches slowly whiten. The harbinger snow warns, “Nothing is forever.” Almost for the first time, I realize that what is true for the seasons is also true for my own life.

Last summer, here at 45 degrees north latitude, the sun rose straight out our east window and brought slow-motion dawns and leisurely dusks. Now the luminous light of late afternoon dims, along with my mood.

I reluctantly relinquish the long, languid days of summer, but I want to grasp fall forever—her wild rains and winds, her stratospheric flocks of geese, and her small, furry creatures that scuttle across our narrow strip of pond-side prairie. Last week, the colder winds encouraged the top-branch leaves to redden, turn brown, then relax their grip. They fell to the lawn, rendering their last sweet smell of decay where they clustered downwind of the tree in a burnt-red and yellow oval. I smelled the still-unfrozen leaves and wondered, Where was I when these fell? These days are precious, and we all face the south sun. I didn’t notice fall’s warning—the browning tips of the tall red-top grasses, the drooping prairie flowers. But first snow means that fall is fading.

I step out the door onto virgin snow that overwhelms the green stems of cut grass. No animal tracks blemish the pristine whiteness—only my footprints.

The crystalline flakes arrive mute, indiscriminate, taking their time to land, more comfortable on the skin than fall’s stinging raindrops. I pull my coat around my chin and think, I need a hat and gloves.

Our marigolds glow deep maroon in the lambent light. Their tendrils still climb the iron shepherd’s crook, but with looser grip. The hostas along the house that shot out long exuberant spears now wilt, their energy spent. In the garden, the bottoms of the tomato stalks are turning brown. The broccoli survives first frost, then fades. Even the deer shun the dying plants.

I lie down spread-eagle on the lawn and stare up into the falling flakes. A light wind blows the snow slantwise through the maple’s witch-finger branches. I cannot feel it as it whitens my hair and clothes, but I taste it and smell its freshness. The snow stifles all sound except the distant cry of geese. I’m glad to be alive today, to see, to taste, to experience heaven’s bright herald of winter.

Pleasure Creek pond lies still, but somehow it senses the weather’s shift, anticipates the icy patina that will soon obscure her face. The geese swim carelessly, agnostic about their future, congregating with cocked heads, assaying the season. Snow sifts down into the bordering, browning prairie grass, whitening the tiny husk of each shriveled prairie flower. Milkweed pods burst open and spew their filaments.

The seasons teach me the cycle.

Hopeful spring says, “Start, take heart, scatter abroad, be reckless and wild.”

Ebullient summer says, “Work, sweat, thrive; strive while you’re alive.”

Savory fall says, “Gather, rejoice, revel in the harvest.”

But winter’s annunciatory flakes say, “Get ready! Check the snow shovels. Drain the garden hoses. Secure the patio furniture. The weather is changing. Treasure what you have. Embrace your now.”

I realize for the first time that I’m in the early winter of my life. I have a new appreciation for Woody Allen’s words—”I don’t want to achieve immortality by my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”

My branches are still sturdy, but they feel more the winter’s winds. Some of my life-leaves have fallen. More and more, conversations drift to health matters. I’m learning new words—mitral valve, atrial fibrillation, gout, LDL, neuropathy.

The snow carries a severe mercy and an unexpected grace—”I make all things new. I erase, cover the dirt of your past. I shroud sorrows and heal wounds. I redeem. Savor me. I’ll blanket you with bitter white, but I’m preparing you for glorious spring. Trust what you cannot see. Weeping lasts for a time, but joy comes in the morning.”

Can I be thankful for winter’s snows? There’s a light at eventide that illumines winter’s day, that shines softer, deeper, more faithfully. As Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “And though the last lights off the black West went. Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs…”

Winter enforces a pause—”Cease, withdraw, retract. Listen, read, pray. You can hear God better in your quiet.”

I must let winter do its silent work. The first snowfall helps me focus, makes me grateful for what I have. Like an unexpected hospital stay, it sharpens my joys, helps me to value life more, helps me to see how precious it is.

I’m so thankful now, in the early winter of my life. I wish to pay attention, to read the seasons, to prepare well for my own winter and beyond. Before I return to my fireside, I say, “First snow, I welcome you. Teach me well the wisdom of winter.”

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