Easter, Year B
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
By Jessica Miller
Across the northeast of North America at this season, a wonder is happening. The flowers of Symplocarpus foetidus have begun emerging and blooming from swamps and wet places. These true Easter-lilies—members of the same family of the Calla ‘lily’—are more commonly known as skunk-cabbage. Varieties of the plant also grow in Japan, where the red robe-like blossoms resembling a monk’s hood have gained it the name Zazen-sou, or Zen meditation plant.
They are one of the first plants to bloom, and they do it in such complete faith of spring that they often can be seen in late February, piercing through ice and snow. “See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place?” Henry David Thoreau said, “There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.” Beyond the anthropomorphism, the skunk cabbage is Zen-like in another way—their utterly calm certainty of hope.
I found a pair of these strange blossoms the other day in a vernal pool. Smooth to the touch, firm and very alive, still clasped around the pollen-bearing spadex underneath the cloak of their leathery spathes. They smell like death (literally. Skunk cabbage blooms smell rotten so as to attract pollinating flies). Also they come out of apparent chaos and death—the murky pool of decaying leaves and punky wood. As I sat with them for a while, I found that I was drawn to them and yet also, strangely, afraid. They are alien. They are awe-full. They attract flies. They ministered to me in this beauty and decomposition. And so, these monks preached the gospel to me as we sat there in that cold swamp.
In this season, many in the Christian tradition reflect upon the suffering and death of our rabbi, brother, friend, leader and king. And then, the resurrection. The Easter lectionary takes us, in the Gospel, with the women to the tomb and I’m struck by the fear of the women. A kind of fear that, I think, Peter speaks of as he proclaims that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34). Surely this fear Peter speaks of is distinct from the fear that caused this same man to deny Christ on the day of Jesus’ death. The fear at the feet of the resurrected Christ is a sort of wonder. And the proof is how it manifests; as Abraham Heschel says, “Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it.”
It’s that hair-raising feeling when you see the hooded figures occupying the swamp where death was supposed to be found. But you have to go in, keep looking. Wonder leads you forward, provides the push. Mary, Mary and Salome are alarmed, then amazed and terrified. But still they go deeper into the story, into the wonder and mystery. So also we cannot stop at lent. We cannot stop at the crucifixion. We cannot stop at suffering. Not with this Force of Nature transforming grief and fear into wonder.
Isaiah tells us that our God—
…will swallow up death forever
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:8)
At the feet of the skunk cabbage—this stinking flower that defies the objectification of bouquets—I hear the words of this scripture and think of Mary and Jesus in the garden. I imagine Christ wiping Mary Magdaline’s tears away with the immense tenderness (and firmness) of a mother approaching her child’s separation anxiety as he says “Do not hold on to me”. And in those words he carries the truth of these words from Isaiah. For the Lord GOD to wipe disgrace from the face of all the earth, he cannot be tamed. In the whiplash of losing and regaining everything in a second of recognition, Mary may have instinctually closed the fist of her heart around her beloved rabbi. But for death to be swallowed up, the disgrace of all the earth to be wiped away—these things take a wild God, not a tame one. We cannot assume that our affection for our rabbi can contain him. “Wonder makes it impossible that the strange, inexplicable, uncommon might ever become thoroughly domesticated,” Karl Barth said. For this resurrection, this Easter, to be complete, we must not hold on to Jesus but be swept into the wild reality of a live God who pushed through the murky swamp of death; a God who is both King of the cosmos and king of the compost.
Christ has transformed death for us. It is no longer the abyss, the murky Sheol. It is the rich compost, the “chief cornerstone” of new life (Psalm 118:22). In the resurrected body of the skunk cabbage and the resurrected body of Christ, there is, as Catherine Keller names it, creatio ex profundis, creation germinating from the deep, loamy abyss of death. Christ plumbed that ultimate mystery—that Creation is made such that death is necessary for life—and gave us a path to no longer fear it, but with brother-death, be in wonder at the Creator.
Symplocarpus foetidus has another wonder to teach. The blooms I sat with that evening were melting little holes in the surrounding ice. These plants are able to regulate their temperature—something that we once thought only ‘warm blooded’ animals could do. The effect on the biotic community is stunning. On mild late-winter days when sunshine wakens insects before food has emerged to sustain them, the inside of the skunk cabbage flower is warm enough to provide shelter for these early-risers that otherwise would be frozen-solid by the plummeting temperatures at night. It is a haven, sometimes near 60 degrees Fahrenheit even in temperatures around freezing. This is truly a wondrous thing.
In a world of mires, of death, of suffering, I am grateful for the witness of the skunk cabbage which proclaim the resurrection of Christ. Their being-ness—their simple Being—warms the air with their hope of spring, and in that one place, it is so. It becomes spring. And all manner of small creatures take refuge. Wonders never cease, and so we must go deeper in and not hold on but go...
Halleluiah! He is Risen Indeed.
Jessica Miller is a botanist and the Land Stewardship and Program Manager at Bellwether Farm Camp, Retreat, and Education Center. In that role, she is responsible for development and planning of ongoing adult and youth programming, overseeing the care of the land, and enacting a land management plan. She is a disciple of the Doan Brook and Vermillion River Watersheds and a Northeast Ohio native. Jessica lives in community with family and friends along with three chickens, vegetable garden and an accumulation of medicinal and native plants.
Laurel Dykstra is the curator of Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on ecological themes in the Revised Common Lectionary.