Reading “A Rose in Snow” by Jane Ellen Mauldin
The year my brother died, my family tried to pretend our sorrow wasn’t real and we kept to all our regular Christmas traditions. Although we were crazed with grief, we tried to fake it and were all miserable.
Later, when my father died, my mother decided we should take a trip for the holidays instead of staying home and being overwhelmed by memories. “But it won’t be like Christmas!” my teenaged brother protested. “It can never be like it has been before,” replied my mother.
Concord, Massachusetts was our destination. We checked into historic Concord Inn on the public square and spent three days exploring the wintry village. We walked across the bridge from which the shot was fired that was heard ‘round the world. We discovered paths in the snow around Emerson’s house and the Alcott house. We slid across the ice on Walden Pond. It was a wonderful adventure, but at the same time we were all unhappy. We spent Christmas Eve in the inn’s pub, and I was not alone in crying myself to sleep that night.
Early on Christmas morning, my mother and I rose at dawn. Leaving my brother asleep, we slipped out for a walk. It was a frosty but clear morning. A fresh layer of snow had utterly muffled the town. For deep, unspoken reasons, we headed up a hill to the old cemetery where many great authors and American leaders are buried. We were looking for the grave of poet Henry David Thoreau. The dirt walkway up the hill was quite steep and coated in thick ice. We pulled ourselves up hand-over-hand using the iron hand rail. As we reached the top, the steam of our breaths appeared to be the only lively warmth in the chilly, pink dawn. After a search, we spied Thoreau’s grave, a large tombstone cresting out of a snowdrift. And there, to our astonishment and joy, lay a single red rose. No one else was in sight, but some lone soul had made his or her pilgrimage in the first light of Christmas Day to salute that free spirit.
My family no longer “does Christmas” as we once did. Each year is now unique, and I like it that way. I have fewer expectations of Christmas and enjoy myself more. I live less in the past and try to appreciate my life here and now.
Let go of what Christmas “should be” and try to live it in your own way. You may find joy where you least expect it: a red rose in the snow.
One hundred year ago tonight, in the midst of fighting far more ugly and brutal than anything that had gone before, French, British, and German soldiers heard the sound of familiar tunes winging across the No-man’s land in between their respective trenches. The loneliness and fear in the singing soldiers’ voices touched the loneliness and fear in the hearts of the listening soldiers. So they joined in- each in their own language singing the some of the same carols that we sing tonight.
The next day, a little at a time, people began to cross that No-man’s land. They shook hands, shared food, and played football. They showed each other pictures of their sweet-hearts and families. They allowed one another to bury their dead. Then they went back to their trenches and resumed fighting.
Chris Baker, author of The Truce: The Day the War Stopped, points out that the truce wasn’t as widespread as we might want to believe, nor did it happen again. In 1915, there were a few isolated pockets of celebration at Christmastime, but new rules against fraternization on all sides made it risky. By Christmas Even 1916, the wounds had cut too deep.
But for a moment, in 1914- a hundred years ago- something special happened. People found a reason to lay down their weapons, and to celebrate their shared humanity. Soldiers yielded to their deep yearning for peace. In the midst of war and suffering, hope and love bloomed.
Henry David Thoreau is probably about as close as we get to a UU Saint. In his story, there is no martyrdom or miracles beyond the ordinary martyrdom of the scholar and poet, and the ordinary miracle of words so potent they come alive on the page.
I would fain improve every opportunity to wonder and worship, as a sunflower welcomes the light. The more thrilling, wonderful, divine objects I behold in a day, the more expanded and immortal I become. If a stone appeals to me and elevates me, tells me how many miles I have come, how many remain to travel – and the more, the better – reveals the future to me in some measure, it is a matter of private rejoicing.
Every leaf and twig was this morning covered with a sparkling ice armor; even the grasses in exposed fields were hung with innumerable diamond pendants, which jingled merrily when brushed by the foot of the traveler. It is literally the wreck of jewels and the crash of gems…Such is beauty ever – neither here nor there, now nor then – neither in Rome nor in Athens, but where ever there is a soul to admire. If I seek her elsewhere because I do not find her at home, my search will prove a fruitless one.
Or this old saw:
Be resolutely and faithfully what you are, be humbly what you aspire to be.
Take time by the forelock. Now or never. You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this, or the like of this.
Thoreau struggled with poor health for his entire life, and he died young. But in his brief life, he brought forth much wisdom and beauty. In the midst of 19th century Massachusetts, his mind and heart bloomed, and we are all the richer for it.
Certainly the mystery rose-giver from our reading valued his gifts. She woke up early in the morning, and pulled herself up, hand over hand, up the icy slope. I’ve climbed that hill, and I can tell you, it’s not an easy trip. Her lungs would have been burning, her hands numb with cold. I don’t know how she held that one perfect rose without crushing it.
I imagine her leaving the rose, pausing for a moment in gratitude, and then turning back and heading home– never knowing that a few hours later, people would come and see that rose lying there in the snow– never knowing that the rose would help them remember that life matters, love matters, and that mortality makes the gift of life all the sweeter. In the midst of loss and uncertainty, hope and love bloomed for the grieving family.
And again: a young woman, heavy with child, travels far from home with her new husband. They are humble estate, poor and powerless. Their people are under the rule of an invading empire. The future is uncertain. They come to a town, and she goes into labor. They go from door to door, seeking a safe place to stay. Eventually, they take shelter in a stable, and the baby is born.
Their hopes for their child were likely quite modest. That he might survive childhood, and learn a trade. That he might marry someday and give them grandchildren. They certainly weren’t expecting their baby to be a God incarnate, the Prince of Peace, the Messiah.
Some people point to the virgin birth, the angels and the star, as signs that this baby was something special. But the fact that the baby is born poor and homeless in difficult circumstances has far more significance. This story reminds us: if this boy, of such humble origins, who lived a mere 33 years, could nevertheless become a great spiritual teacher and transform the world, why not me? Why not you?
The Christmas story reminds us- in the midst of winter, in a land rife with injustice, in a smelly barn, hope and love bloomed, and the fragrance inspires us still.
On a Christmas Eve in 1513, Fra Giovanni wrote these words:
There is nothing I can give you which you have not. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!
Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, the angel’s hand is there.
What made Jesus special, unique, was his ability to grasp the “living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power” that runs just below the surface of life. Each of us has that capacity; we can choose to develop it, or we can ignore it. We must listen to our longings for peace, grab hold of the signs of hope, cling to the deep joy that is our birthright. We have the power to choose between anger and acceptance…between retribution and peace…between despair and hope…between loneliness and love.
These are hard times we live in. Our planet is in peril. Our nation is divided. Each of us has sorrow and loss in our family, in our lives, in our hearts.
In the midst of all this, hope can bloom in us. Love can bloom in us. Peace and joy and justice and honesty and CHRISTMAS can bloom in our hearts. The seed is there in everyone- a spark of divinity, a holy light, a place of purpose and power. Let it bloom- not in spite of the challenges, but because of them.