By Wesley Hill
Every day when I walk my dog, I go past a craggy old Presbyterian church with a rough-hewn wooden cross planted in its front lawn. Depending on the season of the church year, the cross may be adorned with a purple sash, draped with black, or laced with vines. For Easter this year, predictably, it was festooned with bouquets of spring flowers. But as I walked past a week later, the flowers had all wilted. They were still affixed to the cross, but, probably in part because of the unusually cold weather we’d been having in Pittsburgh, all their Easter glory had gone pale and droopy.
It’s probably impossible for someone with a theological brain like mine to avoid attempting to find some meaning in this mundane occurrence, and, true to form, I immediately started. The incongruity of the symbolism at least begged observing. The flowers, meant to symbolize Jesus’ risen life bursting out from the tomb, now carried the whiff of decay. The sign of Easter hope had become an emblem of its opposite. How to reconcile this?
Author David Mills has written movingly of the way, in this time between the times, the liturgical seasons don’t map neatly or uncomplicatedly onto the multilayered reality of our lived Christian experience:
Easter Monday is the day we say “Christ is risen,” but it is also Holy Saturday, the day we can sometimes say with comfort “Christ is risen” but at other times can only feel “Christ is dead,” and at yet other times can say both.
You will sometimes hear people call themselves “an Easter person.” Many really mean “I’m a healthy extravert living in America with an upper-middle-class life” and some really mean “I want to be an Easter person because the Good Friday I’m having is a hell I can’t take.” Saint John Paul II used the term, but his life and writing showed that he did not use it lightly.
It’s not a very useful term as generally used. It’s true as far as it goes, but it leaves out too much to be really true. Every Christian is an Easter person, yes, but he is also a Good Friday person. Many people are, for great stretches of their lives, much more the second than the first, but we are all sometimes more the second than the first. There’s a lot of pain in the world.
There is, in other words, a strange kind of overlapping that we Christians find ourselves living out in between the first advent of Christ and his eventual glorious appearing. We mourn death, but we also declare its defeat: “The Lord is risen!” And we celebrate life, but we prepare for its dissolution: “In the midst of life we are in death.” We know ourselves baptized, forgiven, transformed; and we know we are not thereby immune to guilt, loss, and decline.
The New Testament scholar James Dunn has traced this overlap deep into the heart of St. Paul’s epistles, in which Paul regularly describes the risen life of Jesus present in the Church as being expressed in believers’ dying. Consider Philippians 3:10-11. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (NRSV).
“What is particularly notable,” says Dunn,
is the way Paul speaks of Christ’s sufferings after he speaks of his resurrection. The process of sanctification does not consist in an initial dying with Christ followed in the course of that process by an experience of Christ’s resurrection power. Paul’s doctrine of salvation is quite different. The resurrection power of Christ manifests itself, and inseparably so, as also a sharing in Christ’s sufferings. The process of salvation is a process of growing conformity to Christ’s death. Only when that is completed (in death) can the final resurrection from the dead be attained (the resurrection of the body). Only when believers are fully one with Christ in his death will it be possible for them to be fully one with Christ in his resurrection.
To return to the sight of the flower-adorned cross on my walk, those flowers spoke of resurrection hope, yes. But, tied to the cross, their withering spoke also of how, in this life, that hope never accessible above or beyond or apart from our cross-shaped dying.
As I write these words, we are deep in what the church calendar calls Ordinary Time, the long stretch of weeks after we have celebrated Christ’s birth, his appearance to the Gentile Magi, his testing in the wilderness, his suffering and death, his resurrection, and his pouring out of the Holy Spirit on his followers in Jerusalem. This is the time of the church year in which there are no feasts comparable to Epiphany or Pentecost. This is the time, you might say, when we can’t help but notice the fading of the flowers and ponder what it might be saying about the shape and sequence of our Christian experience.
There’s a sense in which, as Ephraim Radner has observed, the liturgical seasons of the Christian year parcel out what is actually intertwined in experience. The time after Easter, the weeks after Pentecost, is a time of faith, of hope in the return of Christ, of growth in love under the Spirit’s tutelage. But it is also the time of grief, of suffering, and even of death as we realize that our participation in the new era of resurrection life ushers us ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s Passion, until that day when we see his scarred, glorious body with our risen eyes.