Even though this year’s Easter was about as late as the church’s convoluted dating system allows, last Sunday didn’t exactly feel like spring. Raw wind and cold rain persisted right through Holy Week. Only in the last couple of days has spring truly sprung, bringing with it warm wind and heavy thunderstorms.
What is the relationship between Easter and spring, anyway? That may sound like a silly question. “Easter” is an Anglicized form of the name for a Germanic goddess of spring. When Christianity moved into Northern Europe, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection was melded with local folk customs marking the coming of spring. By leaving the tomb, Jesus brings new life, which – perhaps not coincidentally – is bursting out all around us.
Maybe the better question is, what is the relationship between Christ’s resurrection and spring? Jesus was crucified in the spring of the year – during the Jewish Passover. But does the connection go any further? In past years, I have preached about how Christ’s resurrection is unnatural, and therefore finds no true parallel in nature. Jesus did not sprout leaves, break out of a cocoon, hatch from an egg, or come out of hibernation. God raised him from death. Not the dead of winter. DEATH. So all the comparisons between Jesus and butterflies or Jesus and daffodils are misleading. The life that springs forth after winter is natural. The resurrection is wholly unnatural. It is the creative work of God to overcome death with new life.
On the other hand, the signs of spring are powerful symbols of new life. During Lent, a group at my church read Sue Monk Kidd’s When the Heart Waits, basically a memoir of the author’s passage through a mid-life crisis of identity. The book draws heavily on scripture and the writing of Christian mystics as well as on close observations of nature. The reigning metaphor in her story is the caterpillar’s cocoon, which represents for Kidd a time of withdrawal and deep reflection on the way to a new self-understanding. The butterfly’s emergence from the cocoon parallels her own rebirth into her “true self.” Kidd is on solid scriptural ground here. Jesus talked about being “born again,” and Paul talked about becoming a “new creation,” and made clear that this “becoming” is more gradual than sudden. Paul says we are buried with Christ in baptism so that we are “raised to walk with him in the newness of life.” Christ’s death and resurrection provide the pattern of the Christian life. We are united with him in death so that we might share in his resurrection. Paul is not referring only to an actual resurrection post-mortem. He’s talking about the process of salvation that we are “working out” in our earthly lives.
So which is it? Is spring an apt symbol of the new life made possible by Christ’s resurrection, or do connections to nature obscure the unnatural character of resurrection?
Maybe the problem is not the symbolism itself, but which way it runs. A symbol is only part of what it represents. Spring, as a symbol of new life in Christ, is partial. It points beyond itself to the greater reality. But consciously or unconsciously, the direction of the symbolism is reversed in popular Christianity, so that Christ’s resurrection is treated as a symbol of spring, instead of the other way around. It is as if, when we come to church donning new pastel clothing and displaying an impressive array of flowers in the sanctuary, we are saying that the resurrection reminds us of spring, and the real significance of Easter is a celebration of spring, not an old mythology about a rising God.
It is worth remembering that the church’s celebration of Jesus’ resurrection predates Easter. In fact, the early church chose Sunday as its principle day of worship (instead of Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath) because Jesus was raised on a Sunday. Christ’s resurrection was at the center of worship even before Christianity emerged as a distinct religion. Any symbolic connection to spring would not come until hundreds of years later, when Christian missionaries in Europe used the signs of spring to teach the meaning of new life in Christ.
Spring is worth celebrating, especially after a long, hard winter. We would be remiss not to praise God as Creator during these weeks of bursting color and teeming life. But it’s important to remember what is symbolic and what is being symbolized. Spring, like everything else in creation, points beyond itself to the Creator. Likewise, Easter points beyond itself to the absolutely unique and wholly unnatural event of Christ’s resurrection.
Copyright 2011 by J. Mark Lawson