Sunday, March 20, 2016

So Sweet

   Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord   C 

The Abenaki—
a native people of Quebec and New England—
have a wonderful legend about the origins of maple syrup. 

When the world was new—the story goes—
the Creator made life very easy for people:
game was abundant, the weather was always good,
and maple tress were filled with thick, sweet syrup—
all anyone had to do was snap off a twig
and collect the rich syrup that flowed out.

But it wasn’t long before trouble developed. 
People stopped fishing in the streams and hunting in the forest. 
They stopped working the fields and collecting berries. 
The village was abandoned and fires had grown cold. 
Where had they gone? 
They were out lying on their backs in a stand of maple trees
as syrup dripped directly into their mouths! 
The people had grown so fat and lazy they could barely move—
and were so content, they didn’t want to.

When this state of affairs 
was reported to the Great Spirit,
it was decided that changes must be made. 
The Creator had his servant 
take a large birch bark bucket,
draw water from the river, 
and pour it into the maple trees—
pouring more and more water
until the sap was no longer so thick or so sweet. 
The people began to get up and started asking,
“Where has our sweet drink gone?” 
Which is when they learned
that if they wanted their maple syrup again,
it would require hard work:
the sap would only flow sweet 
for a short time in the spring,
buckets would have to be made 
in which to collect it,
and much wood gathered to build fires 
to boil it for a long while. 
And so the people would be reminded
of the earlier error of their ways
and how to honor the gifts of the Creator. 

A slightly different take
on the “forbidden fruit” of Paradise, isn’t it? 
True confession:
I’d have been much more tempted
by maple syrup than an apple…

The maple sugaring season is one rich with traditions
and charged with memory for the people of the North Country. 
And I can’t help but wonder if,
in the great designs of God’s providence,
there are spiritual lessons intended for us
in the way it coincides with Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.

Making maple syrup is a slow, gradual process
that involves much labor,
whether you do it the old-fashioned way
or take advantage of modern technologies:
trees must be tapped, sap must be collected,
then it must be boiled with careful attention—
all after patently waiting for just the right conditions. 
But all this effort results
in a mysterious and beautiful transformation:
impurities are removed, flavor is condensed,
and a most delicious, natural sweetness emerges.

These coming days bring us together
around a tree even sweeter than the maple:
the sacred wood of the Cross. 
The transformation it brings is hard won;
no greater labor has ever been witnessed on the face of the earth—
the perfect work of one who is both God and man. 
The change it brings is one heated by flame:
the relentless, purifying fire of divine love. 
As the French Carmelite mystic
and soon-to-be-saint, Elizabeth of Trinity, remarked,
“There is no wood like that of the Cross
for lighting the fire of love in the soul.”  
And the point of all this labor and burning
is to bring out a natural sweetness:
to restore the life and likeness of God within you and me
that was ours before the fall.

Maple sugaring requires warm days and cold nights—
and those who are expert in the process
know well how to watch for the signs of the perfect conditions. 
Do we require signs that now is the time—
that the day of our salvation is upon us? 
Just look at Peter,
to whom the Lord turned and looked,
not with contempt but compassion,
and see the three-fold denier converted
into the first Pope of a Church whose mission is one of mercy. 
Just look at Pilate and Herod—
political figures not exactly known for their integrity—
and see how simply being near the crucified Messiah
turned these enemies into friends.  
Just look at the condemned criminal
who asks Jesus for a remembrance in his kingdom,
and witness one rightly sentenced to death
become the only saint canonized by Christ himself.

Maybe next year,
instead of importing palm branches from some tropical locale,
we ought to wave twigs from our native sugar maples
to welcome this most holy of weeks—
this week during which,
by a mysterious and beautiful transformation,
Christ restores to us the rich delights of Paradise.

All glory and praise to you, Father and Creator of all,
who has caused forgiveness and life to flow
with such abundant sweetness
from the tree of the Cross!

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