For a few short weeks in the spring, my favorite flower, the tulip, emerges from the earth.
To be honest, I don’t always take the time to stop and admire the flowers or even to “smell the roses.” I am not a gardener, though I have made sporadic attempts over the years to plant and maintain a vegetable patch in my backyard. There is something, however, about tulips that makes me take notice. Perhaps it is sheer variety of tulips with their wide array of splendidly bright colors that makes them so appealing to me; or perhaps it is the shape and composition of the petals. Maybe it is the fact that their shiny petals, at once so sturdy and so frail, are on splendid display for only three weeks a year and that makes their annual appearance so noteworthy.
Although tulip bulbs appear outwardly to be hearty, they do not always bloom as expected. In the warmer climate of the mid-Atlantic we usually have to plant new tulip bulbs in the fall to make sure that they bloom in the spring. This is due to the fact that the ground does not always get cold enough during the winter months to ensure a bloom in the spring. When tulips don’t bloom, they send up a disappointing single leaf or two, a telltale sign that nothing more is to be expected.
In Northern climates, Easter coincides with the arrival of spring, the time when the newly blooming flowers and budding trees emerge from an earth that for so many months had seemed lifeless. Because of the juxtaposition of Easter and the arrival of spring, it is easy for us to see how Easter can function as a symbol of the hope of new life emerging from death, similar to the emerging of the new life from a once dormant tulip bulb.
Easter, however, is more than the seasonal renewal of nature. On Easter Day we celebrate a supernatural event, that God raised Jesus who had been crucified from the dead, giving the promise of new life to us and to all we love. When Jesus spoke of his death and resurrection in the gospel of John, he employed the metaphor of plant life. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). While this biological metaphor may be helpful to our understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it can easily lead us to a poorly developed theology concerning our Easter faith.
The resurrection of the crucified Jesus from the dead is more than a metaphor for new life born out of death or loss, or from the reemergence of a tulip from the earth. Easter is the story of a mighty act of God, both in and outside our human history. In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed that “God raised this Jesus whom you crucified…from death, “having freed him from death because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2: 24, 36).
When tulips reappear in the spring, I give thanks to God for the beauty of the created order. When I think about the resurrection of Jesus, however, I know that biological metaphors cannot capture the meaning and magnitude of the Easter event. The resurrection of Jesus, who had been crucified and had died, from the dead to new life, can in no way be understood as a recurrent act of nature. Jesus’ resurrection is nothing like a bulb that sends forth a flowering shoot each year. The resurrection of Jesus we celebrate at Easter is, however, a singular act of God in the past that continues to give us hope in the present and in our future.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!