Every Easter weekend for the past four years, K and I have traveled to the pastoral Northern Shenandoah Valley to spend the holiday with our good friends, who own a sheep farm near Boyce. John is a stonemason and a bricklayer, Kelly is a carpenter and an architect, and both are leaders in the Sacred Harp community. Their monthly shape note singing is consistently one of the strongest and most enjoyable sings that Sacred Harpers are likely to experience anywhere in the country.
Once a year, Episcopalians from the Clarke County, Va. area gather before sunrise on Easter Sunday to celebrate Christ’s resurrection at an unheated, unlit stone chapel off of Route 340. Constructed in the 1760’s, the building was once the personal chapel of the sixth Lord Fairfax, the colonial governor who commissioned a young George Washington to survey his proprietary holdings west of the Blue Ridge. Although these days the chapel is not used
for regular worship, the local Episcopal community holds Easter sunrise
services there annually, perhaps as a means of connecting with the rich
Anglican tradition northern Virginia. Each spring, John and Kelly are
invited to organize Sacred Harp singing for the sunrise service,
filling the small chapel with the sorts of hymns that Lord Fairfax
himself might have heard there over two centuries ago.
Most people who wish to participate in the Easter sing at Old Chapel arrive at John and Kelly’s farm on Saturday. For K and me, this is one of the highlights of the whole year. Singers arrive in twos and threes, from as close as nearby Berryville to as far as New York. Those who arrive early get to dye eggs for
the Easter egg hunt the following day and are treated to a tour of the
farm. Visitors skirt chickens and ducks as they make their way to the
fields where the spring lambs bleat and cower against the protective
warmth of their mothers’ thick, curly coats.
By late afternoon the farmhouse is filled with
around a dozen travelers, all bearing bedding and baked goods,
songbooks and bottles of wine. The rooms are soon aglow with light and
conversation, and the mingled aromas of corned beef with cabbage,
stuffed shells, muffins, and casseroles waft tantalizingly out the
screen door and beyond into the gravel driveway, tantalizing visitors
with the promise of nourishment and warmth inside. We crowd around the
dinner table, sitting on an assortment of mismatched chairs. Someone
offers a blessing, another a toast, and we take care to save a plate of
food for anyone who might be arriving late.
After dinner we gather in the living room to practice the hymns we’ll be singing the following morning for the service. This year I was asked to choose the songs, and I did my best to match them to the readings, which included selections from Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Romans.
We open with “Abbeville,” a fitting invocation for any feast day (“Come, holy spirit, come, with energy divine…”), followed by “The Ark” (“Jehovah shut them in”), “Confidence” (“Away, my unbelieving fear!”), “Florida,” (“Let sinners take their course and choose the road to death”), “Austria,” (“Break, sovereign grace, these hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh”), and “To Die No More” (“Oh, if my Lord would come and meet, my soul would stretch her wings in haste”), among others. From time to time during the rehearsal we pause to set the pitch, go over particularly difficult parts, and discuss the seating arrangements at the chapel.
The rehearsal ends and the books are put away. Those who like to get to sleep early grab one last coconut bar or piece of molasses gingerbread and go to lay out their air mattresses and sleeping bags in the garage apartment or the new outbuilding. The rest of us pour another glass of wine or go out for a walk in the brisk night air. While K retires to the upstairs bedroom that had been reserved for us in the main house, I stay up far too late talking with the young folks (it doesn’t seem that long ago that I could comfortably number myself among them) about drinking, drugs, fornication, and other peccadilloes. The moon is cold and bright when I finally mount the stairs toward bed.
One of the newest additions to the farm family is a little lamb just a few weeks old, whose mother rejected him at birth. Spindly, bandy-legged, and feeble, he normally would have been left to die, a victim of the law of natural selection and the stark realities of farm life. Instead, John and Kelly’s daughter took pity on him and began nursing the pathetic thing with a bottle. When it became evident that he would not pass away from malnutrition, he was given the name Hope. He is still regarded with skepticism by the other sheep, which seem not to recognize him as one of their own. Although he is sometimes able to steal milk from one of the ewes, Hope is a pariah in the flock, and continues to rely on humans for his food. John jokes that the lamb’s name will remain “Hope” until he reaches 100 lbs, at which point his name will become “meat.”
This, then, is the paschal mystery. A tiny, defenseless creature is born, trembling and frail, in the darkness of a manger. Despised and rejected by his kind, he survives through a mercy that runs contrary to the custom of his world, which dictates that the strongest live, while those that cannot or will not fight are left behind. He is innocent and beautiful. He is loved by every person who lays eyes on him. And, because the universe he lives in expands and contracts in a particular way, he will, through no fault of his own, eventually be put to death. His body will be broken, his blood collected, and his flesh will go to feed and strengthen others. The compassion that attended his birth will be present in the people who bring about his death.
There is no irony in this story, only paradox. Inside the house are fellowship and light, food and singing, all the most precious, most exquisite things that we doomed, weak, flawed, and suffering beings could possibly hope to encounter in this life. Outside, the fields are dark and cold, and the moon glitters above them as keenly as a blade. The tiny lambs who bleat and huddle against their mothers for warmth are on intimate terms with fear and mercy, contentment and pain. The wind moves among the Leyland cypresses at the edge of the road, the fragile world
turns on its own strange axis, and everything is held in place by an
impossibly sweet, deep, and terrible love.