“The Green of Jesus”

I’m savoring spring, how about you? The sweet smell of damp soil; the music of the birds; the soft breath of warm air our faces. The poet Lucille Clifton ties the rising of Jesus to the exuberant green of spring. The poem, “spring song” comes from the book “good news for the earth.” Clifton, who was African American, wrote this collection in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of deep disillusionment with the civil rights movement. One commentator characterized Clifton’s poetry as a voice of “deep affirmation . . . in the teeth of negative evidence.”[1] In “spring song” the richness of the poet’s few words, the meaningful spaces between them, and the smooth unpunctuated flow of thought communicate a vision of resurrection that is all-encompassing. “the world is turning in the body of Jesus.” Jesus’ body is not bound by time or space. It is not only the body of a first-century Palestinian Jew. Jesus’ body is the body of earth—flying, crawling and swimming, breathing and sensing, flowing and freezing, eroding and enduring.

“On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb.” What if we read this beginning in light of all beginnings? In the creation story of Genesis, the world is made in seven mythical days. And Easter has often been called the eighth day of creation. “On the first day of the week.” On the first day, the wind from God sweeps over the tomb, the formless void and the dark waters of the great deep. The rhythm of life emerges—morning and evening and morning and evening. And God names it very good. Very good because it works in harmony; very good because everything from microbes to pollinators to predators has its place; very good, in intricate ways we can understand only just enough to wonder at how little we know.

I was surprised by the sadness and distress I felt when the Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames. I couldn’t articulate why this event shook me so much until I learned that the roof framing in the cathedral was constructed from about 13,000 800-year-old trees, mostly oak. Those trees were already 300 or 400 years old when they were felled. Imagine, these trees bore the marks of the hands and tools of people who experienced life on this planet more than 1000 years ago. I realized that for me, this blaze symbolizes something much bigger than itself—it is an embodiment of the out-of-control feeling of living in this time of ecological destruction. The consuming of such ancient witnesses, the loss of beings so full of memory and story, for me, mirrors the inferno of climate change. Climate scientists say that we have eleven years to radically alter the way we live on earth so that the future we hope for our children and their children is possible.[2] Floods and droughts and famines; lifeless lakes and rivers and wetlands; vanishing species; extreme poverty, extreme political polarization; refugees running from gangs and wars and failing crops; cancer everywhere we turn; shootings and terrorism and white nationalism; anxiety, depression, anger, fear, helplessness and despair. The signs of death are all around us and deep within us.

“On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb.” I suspect they had prepared many loved ones for burial. Their hands held the supplies for washing and anointing the body. The prayers and rituals flowed from them fluidly. They were well-practiced in the ways of compassion and solidarity—acquainted with loss and grief. They knew the tomb to be an important gathering place, a touchstone of memory and story, a way of staying close to the one who had died.

The women knew what to do with a tomb. But they were in no way prepared for an empty tomb. When they did not find the body of Jesus, they were perplexed. The were terrified at the appearance of the angels. And then came the strange and surprising question, a question that’s only found in Luke’s Gospel: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

            Death is everywhere, but so is life. How does our focus on death keep us from seeing, smelling, and tasting life, from dancing with life and turning toward life? Signs of death are everywhere. So are the signs of life. Consider the bees that survived the fire at Notre Dame, for instance. The roof of the Cathedral houses 180,000 bees in three hives. Beekeeper Nicolas Geant explained that the wooden hives escaped the flames because they sit below the main roof. He also said that the temperature where they are located must have stayed below the melting point of wax, because otherwise the hot liquid would have glued the bees together and killed them.[3]. The fact that bees become dormant and disappear during the three months of winter has reminded the church of Jesus, who laid in the tomb for three days before his resurrection. And now bees are at the center of the ecological crisis our world is facing, as colonies collapse and habitat disappears. Without the bees we can’t grow food, so new life for humanity depends on new life for the bees.[4]

The women who came to the tomb told the male disciples how they witnessed the green of Jesus breaking the ground. An idle tale! the men scoffed. That’s a polite translation. They called the women’s message “garbage” “nonsense” “bullshit.” The words of Professor Michael Joseph Brown struck me:

We can see how the absence of social credibility can blind us, who hear this eyewitness testimony, to the truthfulness of other’s declarations. When people lack social capital, their voices mean little or nothing to the rest of society.[5]

Since the Cathedral burned, some of the wealthiest people in the world have pledged billions of euros to rebuild it. Meanwhile, many people who lack such capital are speaking important truths. Why is it, they ask, that we can find the money to repair a building but not to feed the hungry, or to restore the infrastructure of Puerto Rico or to provide clean water in Flint? Mark Charles, a friend of a friend on Facebook, shares an indigenous perspective.

I do not celebrate [the Cathedral’s] demise, nor can I honestly lament it. I hope, even pray, that when the Catholic Church and the French people rebuild Notre Dame they will remember and acknowledge the incredible pain such a building represents to those who were colonized by them throughout the world. It is in times like this that I appreciate the wisdom of one of our indigenous elders, George Erasmus, from the Dené Nation. “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”[6]

Over the centuries, the western church has interpreted the resurrection to mean that I get to heaven after I die. This individualistic and corrupt version of the church and the story of our faith is going up in flames. And that’s a very good thing, an inferno of resurrection, an Easter blaze. We’re turning toward a different version of the body of Jesus and the empty tomb, one that the eastern church has cultivated from the very beginning. Resurrection is a communal, planetary reality, something we all participate in together. God’s gift of new life is a common future grounded in common memory, a future in which the disbelieved are believed, and the voices that were ignored become part of an integrated whole.

The world is turning in the body of Jesus. Death in all its forms is real. But death is not the end. Life begins again and again and it is very good. Every day is the first day. Every day is Easter. Now is the dawn of creation. Amen.

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lucille-clifton

[2] https://www.vox.com/2018/10/8/17948832/climate-change-global-warming-un-ipcc-report

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/19/europe/notre-dame-bees-fire-intl-scli/index.html

[4] https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/earshot/the-significance-of-the-bee/6924374

[5] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2819

[6] https://www.facebook.com/pg/MarkCharlesWirelesshogan/posts/?ref=page_internal