April 21, 2019, When Is a Symbol not a Symbol? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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We’ve spent the last month or so surrounded by symbols of Easter. Because nobody in this world around us got time for Lent. But the world is very fond of Easter, with all its symbols of new life and fresh beginnings. And they are mostly very good symbols.
Flowers, especially the flowers we have here in front of us today, flowers that grow in the early spring, are an excellent Easter metaphor. We take the bulbs, brown and shrivelly and dead-looking, and we bury them in the garden in the short, dark days of autumn. And they lie under the dirt and snow and ice all winter long. And as soon as the days begin to lengthen, and the sun begins to warm the earth, the bright green spears of daffodils and tulips and hyacinths pop up out of the ground. Sometimes they push right up through a layer of late snow! Because when their season has arrived, almost nothing can stop these spring-flowering plants from rising up and bursting into bloom.
Butterflies are also a favorite Easter symbol. Children find them almost magical, but let’s not kid ourselves, don’t we all find butterflies pretty magical? Most of us barely notice butterflies in their larval state; mostly we relegate caterpillars to the creepy-crawly category of life forms, even though some of them, like the black and white and yellow-striped Monarch caterpillar, are beautiful in their own way. But when those Monarch caterpillars have eaten enough Milkweed plants they form a hard, shiny chrysalis around their body, that doesn’t look like any kind of animal at all. Other kinds of caterpillars spin a fibrous cocoon around themselves. But when the time is right – and they always know when that is – the caterpillar breaks out of its chrysalis or cocoon. And they aren’t caterpillars any more, which is why we are so enchanted with them. From crawly, squishy, multi-legged critters caterpillars transform into winged creatures of incredible beauty. An Easter kind of miracle!
But maybe the all-time favorite Easter symbol is birth. At Easter – and pretty much any other time as well – we love baby things. We love chicks and bunnies and ducklings and lambs. And puppies. We just love babies, human babies, all babies. And surely, birth is a brilliant symbol of the Resurrection, the process of that dark, painful transition between the hidden life of the womb, and the first breath of life in the world. How exciting, how soul-satisfying, how joyful, is the sound of that first cry, or peep, or bleat, or mew, from a newborn creature?
These symbols of the Resurrection are the very best the world has to offer, and they are very good things. God wove these things into the creation from the very beginning, so that even though the corruption of sin has crept in and spoiled so much, mankind is not overwhelmed by despair at the inevitability of death. We find comfort in the cycles of renewal God has built in to our lives. It has always been a comfort to people to remember in the dark and cold of winter that life and light will return in the spring. Every day it is an encouragement to see the light of dawn in the east after a long dark night. Our spirits lift to see the buds on the trees and to watch the days getting longer. We plants seeds and plants as an act of faith that life will be renewed.
Even as we grow old, even as we become more aware of the approach of our own death, we are comforted by the presence of little children. There is a day-care center at the nursing home in Canton, and the resident absolutely light up when the kids walk by their rooms. And just think how happy it makes us to see Loxlin’s cheery little self at church on Sundays! Hinduism has extended this into the whole idea of reincarnation, the never-ending cycle of re-birth after death. Elton John Disney-fied it in The Lion King, with his song “The Circle of Life”.
But in all these things, no matter how good or comforting they are, we are like children who comfort ourselves in the fearful darkness of our bedroom at night with a beloved toy or blanket. We can keep ourselves from giving in to terror. But we can never stop the dark from coming.
But the Resurrection of Jesus Christ that we celebrate today is not really like the return of the spring. It’s not really like a butterfly hatching from it’s cocoon. It’s not really like the new life of a lamb or a chick or a baby. It really has nothing to do with the Circle of Life. It is infinitely more than all of those things. Because as comforting as these things are, in the end they are just the brave but weary recycling of this broken creation. None of those things can stop the dark from coming. But the Resurrection is all about stopping the dark from coming.
Paul wrote: “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep – by which he means die – but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality….then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In the kingdom of this world, life is a fragile and perishable state. No matter how many new beginnings there might be, death always comes at the last. But with the breaking in of the kingdom of heaven at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, now it is death that is temporary. Now it is life that will have the final word. The cross was the final battle between life and death. And when Jesus walked out of the tomb and left it empty, Life won. The Resurrection was a one-time, earth-shattering event that changed everything.
Because of the Resurrection, we proclaim these words of Job in our burial liturgy with absolute confidence:
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.”
God promised the victory of the empty tomb long ago through Isaiah the prophet, who wrote: “The Lord of hosts…will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.” Isaiah is talking about the inevitability of death that lies like a funeral pall – the cloth we lay over a casket – over all of humanity. Soren Kierkegaard sort of summed it up for everybody when he said, “As soon as a human being is born, he begins to die.” But that veil, that covering, Isaiah said, was not going to last forever. “The Lord God will swallow up death forever;” he wrote, “and he will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him, let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.’” And that is what we do today.
Alleluia! The Lord is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
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