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The cherry tree outside my window is, as Houseman describes, “hung with snow.” I am reminded of that little gem of a poem, the second in A Shropshire Lad, every April. Having been so recently shrouded by snow, one would think that such a display would not be as dazzling – but it is. Every spring it is. Elliot, in his poem, “The Wasteland,” begins by saying: “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” There is that as well – the idea of mortality present on the surface of a blooming, youthful world. Even Houseman’s poem is concerned with mortality:
Now of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Of my three score years and ten, 53 will not come again. The older one gets the more springtime involves thoughts of mortality.
My cherry tree was planted eleven years ago by the elders as a memorial to my father who had recently passed. Despite major surgery he succumbed to cancer eight years before he reached his allotted three-score and ten. The tree itself lives only because of major surgery, performed by David Bobbitt three years back. The tree was large and lush but a bacterial infection was splitting the trunk. David prescribed major cutting to get all the infection out. When he was done nearly half the trunk was gone, and only one branch, bearing one leaf was left. I placed a single red Christmas ball on the branch for a few days, and then took it down because no one thought it was funny except me. David promised it would be back to health and fuller than ever in a few years and he was right. It is the very symbol of spring and new life – though the trunk is still visibly scarred.
The phrase “three score years and ten” is from the King James Version of Psalm 90 – the only psalm attributed to Moses. Moses’ ethos is closer to Elliot’s than to Houseman’s. He writes: The days of our years are three-score years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be four-score years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away, (Psalm 90.10 KJV). His intension, though, is not to depress us, but to “teach us to number our days” (v.12).
The Bible is not bleak. It teaches us to learn from the beauty of God’s handiwork. David tells us to look at the heavens and comprehend the glory of God (Psalm 19.1), and Jesus tells us to consider the lilies of the field and comprehend His provision (Matthew 6.28ff). The lilies are not in bloom yet. This week we look to the crocus, the daffodil, the forsythia, and the snow-laden cherry to understand the same. Even Psalm 90 ends with Moses asking that “the beauty of our LORD God be upon us” (v.17).
Spring leads us to look, like Janus, both forward and backward. In autumn we look back in the comfort of nostalgia, but not forward. Spring reminds us that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes posits, there is a time for everything as the wheel of time turns – a time to be born and a time to die, a time to sow and a time to reap (Ecclesiastes 3.1-8). Life and death are points on the same circle.
The writer of Ecclesiastes also asserts that God has set “eternity” in our hearts. We have in us the notion that there is an existence beyond the wheel of time. It is more than a notion, really. It is a yearning. Every perfect cherry blossom, or snowflake reminds us of the perfection of the God we serve. If there can be such beauty here – how beautiful will heaven be?
And so we say, with Moses: Teach us to number our days, and may the beauty of our LORD God be upon us.
- Barry Bryson