Discover more from Life Reconsidered
When Holy Saturday Lingers
Vol 1., No. 2: Connecting with heavenly realities through creation
We’re almost two weeks into Eastertide, and I’ll be honest — I’m still nursing a Holy Saturday hangover.
On the Easter Sunday that was April 4, 2021, nothing — not the ringing of bells, the singing of songs, the reading of celebratory declarations, nor the preaching of the Word — could soothe my sensation of being stuck in the space-time that exists in the shadow of crucifixion, where resurrection is perceived only through a glass, darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). Maybe it would have helped if I had experienced the bells, songs, readings, and preaching in person at a place of worship where I was known instead of via a live-stream of a church where I don’t know a soul. Maybe. Ok, probably. But I doubt even that would have helped me reconcile the unshakeable heaviness in my heart with the jubilation that the calendar was instructing me to feel.
My husband and I are in the midst of navigating a difficult and complex ministry situation. It involves people we can’t control, injustices we can’t correct, traumatic childhoods we can’t undo, spiritual forces beyond our comprehension, and a spectrum of potential outcomes ranging from highly unpleasant to disastrous. In our overwrought state, we’ve come to recognize the inestimable value of An Order for Compline from The Book of Common Prayer. And melatonin.
Our fiery trial is compounded by the sad reality that after two years of attempting to find spiritual community through a nearby church, we’ve come up empty and are without the support of an embodied faith community right now. We do have the sympathy and prayers of friends and family around the country, people to whom we send Mayday texts and emails. We also know that the Lord is with us. But on a purely practical level, we often (not always) feel as if we’re carrying the weight of this overwhelming situation and all of its potential consequences alone. Easter seemed to throw this sense of aloneness into stark relief.
Meanwhile, there’s the ever-present white noise of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Palm Sunday, I’ve shed copious tears — on my knees, on my feet, prostrate on the floor, in fetal position on my bed; also while cooking, cleaning, pulling weeds, praying, texting, driving, walking the dogs, sitting at my desk trying to write this newsletter, and talking on the phone.
Amid all the tears, however, I’ve experienced what I can only describe as an invitation from the God of the cosmos to behold his creation in deeper, more transformative ways.
Last week, as I was combing through the archives of my WordPress site, I came across this piece I wrote on marcescence almost exactly four years ago. The term refers to the retention of typically-shed leaves through the winter months by certain species of deciduous trees. I first became curious about marcescence when my daughter and I came across a huge beech tree while following some deer tracks near her uncle’s house in central New Jersey. I remember thinking how odd it was that the daffodils on the ground were already starting to bloom, yet this tree still had so many dead leaves on it. I ended up taking some close-up photos. Here’s the best one:
Theories abound for why some deciduous trees retain their leaves through the winter. Marcescent leaves may: 1) serve to conceal tender new growth from potential browsers like deer and moose, 2) improve survival by protecting the trees from damaging winds and potential water balance issues, or 3) decompose better once they finally fall off the tree in the spring, increasing the amount of organic matter that returns to the soil in the tree’s root zone. In the end, though, no one knows for sure why marcescence happens.
We also don’t know why certain griefs and intractable situations in life persist the way they do, like withered leaves that remain stubbornly present “out of season.” It’s hard not to despair over them.
As I restudied this photo, my gaze gravitated, as it did four years ago, toward the leaf buds growing out immediately adjacent to the points of attachment of the dead leaves. And somehow they reassured me of the often hard-to-discern reality that despite the apparent prominence of deadness in this world, new life continues to progress under God’s watchful direction; that when life is ready to burst forth, what’s dead will completely give way to it.
I wanted to visualize this further, so after a quick internet search, I found a 30-second time-lapse video of beech leaves unfurling. If you’re visually impaired, imagine multiple tender leaves enlarging and then fully opening up, with not a marcescent leaf in sight.
The symbolism here hit me so powerfully that even after watching this video multiple times throughout the week, for days I couldn’t get through it without sobbing. The tears I cried weren’t tears of relief (there’s no relief in sight yet from the helplessness, uncertainty, and watchful waiting); rather, they were the physical response of a heart that felt seen and reassured by the Maker of all things. I was suddenly aware of not only Christ’s presence in my suffering but also my participation in his (Philippians 3:10). “Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13)
Marcescence assures us that Jesus waits and weeps with us through all our Holy Saturdays,even as ours reflect his Holy Saturday journey. The buds assure us that he is securing and has already secured the coming resurrection and renewal of all things.
Through the Things He Has Made (Romans 1:20)
I commented to my husband how interesting it was that the Easter service and the beech leaves conveyed essentially the same message yet hit me in such vastly different ways. The former had little effect on my forlorn state of mind, while the latter moved me to tears and worship.
Perhaps the explanation for this difference can be found in author Stratford Caldecott’s assertion that all of creation possesses symbolic properties. What he meant is that trees, mountains, stars, oceans, etc. are not just things that God created for us to enjoy; they’re also symbols. And symbols are manifestations of things that would otherwise remain imperceptible to us.As such, they serve as bridges between the earthly realm and the heavenly one.
Consider what Catholic historian Christopher Dawson had to say:
“If . . . the world is the effect of the Divine Word uttered at the beginning of time, then all of nature can be taken as a symbol of a supernatural reality. Everything that exists, in whatever mode, having its principle in the Divine Intellect, translates or represents that principle in its own manner and according to its own order of existence; and thus, from one order to another, all things are linked and correspond with each other so that they join together in a universal and total harmony which is like a reflection of the Divine Unity itself.”
What we’re getting at goes beyond mere principle, though, if we understand that creation itself flowed out of an eternal community of perfect love that is the trinitarian Godhead. In his devotional series on Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14, author and minister Skye Jethani wrote, “The Christian vision of God as revealed in scripture tells us that the foundation of the universe is not matter, or energy, or even will. The entire cosmos is created and sustained by a relationship. The Christian God is fundamentally a personal and relational God; a God who existed eternally in perfect, loving, communion with himself—Father, Son, and Spirit.”So, while Divine Intellect is there for us to discover and behold in creation, the key thing to realize is that creation ultimately embodies God’s relational and communal nature.
In a phone call with my best friend last week, she said to me, “I know you feel alone, but let me remind you of the ways that you are not alone. God is with you, and he is a trinitarian community — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Also, remember that you’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They’re real. And then, there are the angels.”
By the great cloud of witnesses, she was referring to the passage in Hebrews 11:1-12:1, where many martyrs and heroes of faith are either named or referenced: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses’ parents, Moses, the people of Israel who passed through the Red Sea, those who marched around Jericho until its walls fell, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets, and faithful ones who had been tortured, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, put to death by the sword, persecuted, rendered destitute, or sawn in two.
As a Protestant, I struggled for decades to understand the practice that Catholic and Orthodox Christians have of praying to Mary and various saints, or asking them to intercede on their behalf. It seemed at best weird and at worst idolatrous. But as I’ve studied church history and become more acquainted with the scriptural basis of these practices, and as I’ve come to understand the heavenly realm not as somewhere remote and “up there” but as a reality that’s intimately interlocked with the earthly realm, conversing with the saints who have gone before me seems far less odd now. And ever since I made praying through An Order for Compline a nightly exercise, I’ve started thinking a lot more about angels.
Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy;
let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace;
and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
In Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren writes, “The historic church imagined a universe jam packed with angels, and ancient leaders talk about angels a lot… Aquinas called them ‘intellectual creatures’ or ‘incorporeal creatures’… Hilary of Poitiers wrote that ‘everything that seems empty is filled with the angels of God, and there is no place that is not inhabited by them as they go about their ministry.’”
For some reason, I immediately think of starlings. Starling murmurations are amazing to behold. Thousands, sometimes millions, of birds form what looks like a fluid, shape-shifting cloud. When you see them fly like that, it’s hard to imagine how so many individual birds synchronize their movements so perfectly. But scientists have discovered that each bird’s movement affects seven of its closest neighbors, and each of those neighbors' movements in turn affect their closest seven neighbors, and so on through the entire flock. This is the case no matter how large the flock gets. As it turns out, interacting with six or seven neighbors optimizes the balance between group cohesiveness and individual effort.
The following video by filmmaker Neels Castillon, “A Bird Ballet,” contains no CGI effects or enhancements. Castillon was in Marseilles, France getting ready to film a helicopter’s flight into the sunset when tens of thousands of starlings showed up and gave him something else to film.
For me, the starling murmurations could symbolize either the great cloud of witnesses or the myriad of angels involved in ministry to humans or both. It doesn’t particularly matter, since I’m not trying to decipher their symbology precisely. It’s enough that they remind me that I’m anything but alone. I marvel that even the math that undergirds their dynamic formations reflects the intensely relational nature of their Creator. Educator Michael S. Schneider wrote, “Numbers are a map of the beautiful order of the universe, the plan by which the divine Architect transformed undifferentiated Chaos into orderly Cosmos.”
As a society, we’ve been heavily conditioned not to think of the material world in this way. But the more I allow my mind to receive and perceive the symbolism contained in creation, the more I realize how starved my imagination has been, rendered anemic by numerous forces ranging from post-Enlightenment rationalism to technolopoly. It’s hard to resist these forces. I had a vivid imagination as a child, but even then, I was already being trained to approach the world as nothing more than a vast compendium of objects and subjects to study, understand, deconstruct, and master. This training only intensified as I pursued a career in public health and western medicine. My saving grace, I think, is that I’m a creative at heart, which motivates me to cultivate wonder and nurture a bit of chronic rebelliousness (even if it’s mostly in the private corners of my heart) to “the way things are.”
I hope these reflections encourage you to look at creation with new eyes that spark a fresh sense of delight and wonder and connection with the Divine.
For all you bridge builders out there, here’s a podcast episode you’ll love called “The Courage to Connect.” Tristan Harris from the Center for Humane Technology interviewed John Wood and Ciaran O’Connor of Braver Angels about the creative ways they’re bringing Americans on opposing sides together for healing conversations. They lost me toward the end when they started talking about scalability, but everything else was such a worthwhile listen. It will spark your imagination for redemptive culture making.
Click on the link to listen or to access the transcript. https://www.humanetech.com/podcast/30-the-courage-to-connect
I’ve had this song on repeat for days now. “Your Labor is Not in Vain” by Porter’s Gate (feat. Paul Zach and Madison Cunningham):
In Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren writes, “[Christ] does not weep as we weep, but as our friend and Redeemer he enters into our weeping. He watches with us, not as we watch, but in holy and perfect attentiveness, watching with utter and loving absorption as each sparrow falls, as each sea lily creeps across the ocean floor, as each mitochondrion gathers nutrients in our cells.” Warren T. (2021). Prayer in the Night: For This Who Work or Watch or Weep. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. Page 77.
Taylor C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge University Press, as cited in Caldecott S. (2009). Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. Page 47.
Caldecott S. (2009). Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of education. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. Page 46.
Dawson C. (1952). Understanding Europe. London and New York: Sheed & Ward, as cited in Caldecott S. (2009). Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. Page 48.
Jethani S. (26 March 2021). “Jesus’ Farewell Discourse: A Neverending Community of Love.” With God Daily. https://skyejethani.com/farewell/a-never-ending-community-of-love/
Warren (2021), p.83.