This is the year. The big one. They are coming, ready or not, and they will arrive in droves.
In Pennsylvania, where I live, this is the year of Brood X. The year of the huge 17-year cicada hatch.
According to National Geographic, there are 3,000 cicada species, but only seven are periodical cicadas.
The insects we typically hear droning as the backdrop music to our summer nights have spent less than a year underground as nymphs.
The 17-year cicadas (or 13-year cicadas in the south) hatch from eggs laid over a decade ago on the bark of a tree, in the sunlight.
Shortly after birth, they drop to the ground, where they burrow underneath the soil and live for 17 years, sucking nutrients from tree roots, in complete and utter darkness. When they emerge, they add their voices to the yearly cicadas, sometimes numbering over 1.5 million in one acre.
Seventeen years ago, in 2004, my oldest son was home.
Having sampled the life of an adventurer and world-traveler, he was home that spring to say his goodbyes before leaving for a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Zambia.
My emotions were all over the place. I was thrilled to have him temporarily at home but anxious about the impending separation and worried about the living conditions he would face in the African bush.
One morning as we drank coffee together, an article in our local newspaper describing the emergence of the 17-year cicadas caught my eye. I asked my son if he would like to try to find them with me.
This particular son has always been the family member most likely to agree to accompany me on adventures in the woods.
We set out in our attempt to locate the insects.
As it turned out, they were impossible to miss.
Driving through the heavily wooded state game lands a few miles from our house, the unmistakable whine of male cicadas calling for a mate became increasingly loud. As we turned onto a gravel road to park the car, the cacophony was deafening, even through car windows. We had to shout to communicate.
When we exited the car and began walking, we soon realized cicadas were blanketing each tree and shrub. The garishly colored green and black bugs were everywhere, their red eyes glittering. Female cicadas periodically flicked their transparent wings to signal “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!” to their would-be suitors, causing sparks of sunlight to cascade from thousands of leaves.
While yearly cicadas have evolved evasion strategies to avoid predators, periodic cicadas, who live the majority of their lives underground, don’t need them. We could walk right up to the insects clinging to every nearby plant and examine them to our hearts’ content.
We gaped at the spectacle going on all around us, unable to speak, even if we could have made ourselves heard above the din. I was on sensory overload.
It was a perfect experience. One I will never forget.
Time makes events memorable.
Each winter is, for me at least, a waiting time.
Yes, a snow-coated country scene is beautiful. I enjoy sledding with my grandchildren, sipping hot cocoa afterward, sitting in front of a blazing fire, all the wintertime things.
When spring arrives, however, I realize. I have been holding my breath, marking time for the warmth, the sunshine, the flowers, and bees, the brightly-colored birds to return. I have been waiting to see the first butterfly, to hear the first spring peeper, to feel the first warm spring rain, to watch the earth come alive again.
I exhale each spring.
If the annual renewal and rebirth of spring are special, how much more special must the emergence of the periodic cicadas be? It only occurs once every 17 years.
When Christians talk of renewal and rebirth, they are usually referring to Jesus sacrificing his body on the cross to wash away our sins. There is another renewal, however, that takes place through the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit has “renewed and sanctified us to be members of Christ” (according to the Heidelberg Catechism).
This means that not only have our past sins been washed away, the Spirit gives us the power to turn away from sin so it is not appealing to us. We become “dead to sin“, living blameless lives through grace.
We have been and are continually washed clean every day. Baptized in the Spirit, we emerge, blinking and scrubbed, into the light and the wonder. Just like a newborn emerging astonished from the darkness of the womb.
Just like cicadas, surfacing after living for 17 years in the darkness.
This spring, I will seek the periodic cicadas again. My son now lives 2,000 miles away, so maybe I will ask my husband to go with me.
I want to be there to witness the emergence, the rebirth with wonder and gratitude. I want the grace. I want the holiness.
I want the exhale.
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