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Two years ago today, on a bright Monday afternoon, I wrote this reflection on the confluence of spring, Holy Week, the fire of Notre Dame, and the last earthly days of a beloved congregant. This ultimately became the funeral sermon for that congregant, and with the permission of the family, and the permission of Debra Rienstra, whose poetry I quote, I’d like to share it today.
It’s Monday, and Notre Dame is burning.
It seems unimaginable even to write those words. This is a story we read about in books. Ancient cathedrals crumbling to the ground, shirt factories catching fire, whole medieval towns going up in flames from a single candle left by a window.
But not today. This building that has withstood wars and bombings, seen kings and queens crowned and buried, a building immovable – imperishable! – for centuries…to watch the spire, the very heart of the church, crumble into the nave’s blazing innards…there is too much fragility to handle. How can something so permanent be so quickly decimated? We depend on these things, these monuments, these pillars of time and space and history and place, that orient us and help us make sense of things. How do we make sense of things now?
Today is, Lord willing, the last day of snow. Driving to Holland down Lakeshore Drive this morning, the boughs hang low over the road, even as some fling upwards again as the sun releases their blankets of snow, sending showers onto the windshield. I put on the Narnia soundtrack, for that seems appropriate: “Wrong will be right when Aslan comes in sight; at the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more. When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death, and when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”
It’s fitting, isn’t it, to enter Holy Week with this last winter? Aslan, on the move! Scripture pops into my head: “See,” says the Lord to Isaiah, “I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up – do you not perceive it?” That old romantic in the Song of Songs: “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come.”
“See, I am doing a new thing.” It’s peculiar that in this Holy Week that new thing…is death. The Son of God dying for the ones he loves. Sacrifice unheard of in all of time. Jesus the Christ, stretched out on a tree, his heart a spire crumbling into the abyss of forsakenness.
In Holland, at Western, my friend Ron shares a poem his wife, Debra, wrote. It’s called “Resilience”.
So first thing after they moved in
the neighbors dug up Ruth’s old garden,
a front-yard oddity that had appeared –
shaggy, extravagant, sprawling – wherever
her springtime sweat cast its charms.
The new people pulled out
her spindly jungle of asparagus; tore up
the nasturtium border whose sensuous petals,
like mangoes, you could pluck and eat;
they hacked down six-foot sunflowers;
mowed over silky native grasses that flowed
on breezy days like a woman’s hair.
The little paw-paw tree they decided to keep.
They mowed around it.
Grinning and waving at us as we strolled by,
they spent a hot September weekend
digging and seeding, laying straw,
staking off squares of flat, potential decency.
The straw muddied, winds came,
snow fell then melted, the weather warmed,
and Ruth’s earth took its revenge:
A hundred tulips shot up
in the feeble spring lawn,
raising first their cocked leaves,
then their green, defiant heads.
I walk back to my car, and the cocked leaves of Holland’s tulips peak up out of the snow. Be brave, little ones; be resilient.
At home I hear about Notre Dame. The immensity of it overwhelms me. And yet…yet the people gather outside the cathedral. Their voices as one in the Lord’s prayer: Notre pere, qui est aux cieux…
Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.
Wherever the fire of your countenance is beheld.
And so here, gathered on the sidewalks, beyond the police perimeter surrounding the cathedral, is the church. Far more than a building. Greater than any one place. Enduring all these years. Perhaps the greatest proof of the existence of God. For there but for the grace of God…
I get a text from Peter as I’m perusing news stories. “They’ve moved Mom home from the hospital. Will you come visit?” I get back in the car, drive back down roads which this morning were covered in snow, and now are edged in vibrant green. While I drive, still thinking about that ancient cathedral, another verse springs to mind: “though worms destroy this body, yet shall I see God.” This from Job, that most troubled and afflicted of souls. If he could believe…
The long, winding drive into Sunset Hills, ending at the very top of the dunes, where, behold, Lake Michigan in all its late-afternoon glory. The spring sun – “See! I am doing a new thing!” dazzling the water before it. Judy lies in her hospital bed, facing the lake, eyes opening only for moments. Who knows what they behold? I hope the light of a new thing.
We sit, and laugh, and cry some, and share stories. Of moves from one place to the next. Of factories, and summer sand, and bridge trolls, and book clubs, and the Iliana Girls, of family and master’s degrees and grandkids. The kids are obviously rather proud of their feminist, bookish, world-traveling mother. I’m sure she was even prouder of them.
As I’m leaving, John points to a cross stitch Judy made many years ago: three flowers of red and orange and these words: “Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God.” And I think, as I drive back down Lakeshore, of a waiting earth. Waiting for the warmer rains of spring to nourish those defiant tulip heads. Who knows what will spring out of the earth, out from the blanket of snow, out of the ashes of fire, bursting into places unexpected, dazzling us with light and color where we had only ever hoped for flat, potential decency.
This is Monday. On Friday, the world will descend into waiting. It will be a long night. Saturday will be a long day. There is to be no work on the Sabbath. So the women will wait. Wait to bring their spices and balm until Sunday, when they trudge to the tomb, through the barren and bereft world.
The agony of an empty tomb is too much. They have taken him, but why?
Mary kneels in the garden, feeling the weight of perishability.
And then…a cocked leaf. A defiant green headed tulip.
To be called by name by the one who loves her. Here, in this garden, in this place that only moments ago was covered in a blanket of snow, covered in the ashes of fire, a place of flat, potential decency…here is the greatest wonder, the most awesome surprise. Resilience! Resurrection!
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
“See, I am doing a new thing!”
Behold, the one who was dead, now laughing with the delight of resurrection life, beckoning his beloved. “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me! See, the winter is past. Death has been swallowed up in victory. The season of singing has come.”
“Resilience,” Debra Rienstra, Flourish Magazine, Spring 2010