Resurrection, not death and decay, is the true law of nature
On Monday of Holy Week, my family lost my uncle Alan to a brief and brutal bout of cancer. Within a month he was diagnosed and gone, leaving four brothers and sisters and his widowed mother reeling with the loss.
On Tuesday of Holy Week, a Facebook friend posted this quote from writer Flannery O’Connor:
For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified.
My family’s sudden loss, coming on the heels of the year of loss we’ve all just experienced, made death and decay seem only natural. It was easy to contemplate death this Holy Week. But it was much harder to look with hope toward Easter and imagine the truth of Flannery O’Connor’s words — that resurrection, not death and decay, might be the true law of nature.
Earlier this Lenten season, I came across the idea of resurrection as a natural law from a different literary figure, Wendell Berry. His poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” opens with a challenge to us all to thwart the system of the world by living in ways that “won’t compute,” and ends with the celebrated call to us to “Practice resurrection.”
What does it mean to “practice resurrection?” For Berry, it is partly about opting out of the status quo. “Work for nothing,” he says; “Take all that you have and be poor./ Love someone who does not deserve it.”
These counter-cultural acts are acts of resurrection not just because they run contrary to “the quick profit” and “the annual raise.” Loving God and the world and others requires faith in the long view of nature, in which resurrection is the rule and not the exception.
Consider the middle section of Berry’s poem, in which he counsels the reader according to the wisdom of the life cycle of a forest:
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Here Berry refers to the process by which dead plants are broken down into the soil, creating conditions for new growth, and, over thousands of years, cultivating the nutrients necessary for more complicated plants with longer life cycles to grow and thrive. As William Morgan for the North American Farmer puts it, “This is the reason that a mature forest cannot simply be planted: It takes many successive plant generations to build a suitable environment, and once the suitable environment is in place, long-lived perennial trees that characterize a forest take many more years to grow to maturity.”
In the life-death cycle of plants, death is a key component, not only of the individual plant’s own life, but of the life of entire ecosystems, and our life too. Unless plants die, the forest does not live.
The law of resurrection at work in nature is one that brings new life and growth out of the death and decay of plants. We see this renewal each spring, but we will never live long enough to see the full process at work, to see the grown sequoias and the life-giving layer of humus cultivated over millennia.
Jesus alluded to a similar process in John’s gospel, when he foretold his own death:
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
In the light of Easter Sunday, it is easy to see Jesus as that kernel of wheat, dying to be raised again to life and producing many more seeds in us. But it’s harder to apply his words to our own lives and deaths.
A plant, after all, is designed to feed the soil through decay. Human beings however? That’s a much grimmer thought, more fit for Shakespeare’s gloomy Hamlet, who called us all worm food, saying “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm,” so that “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.”
Not a pretty picture of ‘resurrection.’
No, the resurrection of Christ is a full, bodily resurrection. He is the firstborn of creation, and we his brothers and sisters who will also have a resurrection like his. Flannery O’Connor called Christ’s resurrection “the high point in the law of nature…” characterized by “flesh and spirit united in peace.”
That is the hope of resurrection: a fully unified self — body, soul, and spirit — no longer subject to death or decay, but alive forever, with Christ, the risen Lord.
But this resurrection is like nothing we can see or understand in the here and now. It requires faith in the long view of history and redemption, faith in the long cycle of re-creation. The wheat and the forests paint us pictures, remind us to be patient, and alert us to the resurrection principles built in to the world around us.
Practicing that resurrection in our daily lives looks a lot like death. Death to our comfort and security and certainty. Death to what passes for life in order to grab hold of the true life in Christ, in the hope that the highest law of nature — the law of resurrection– is working itself out in the long run.
This Easter, for my family, I believe that practicing resurrection also looks like embracing grief. For what is grief but a reminder that death is not nature’s highest law? Death runs completely contrary to what we feel, deep in our heart’s darkest soil, to be the Truth: that we were created for life, that life is the original design, and that death is now the crack in the design, which God mends with the gold of Christ’s resurrection.
We were always meant for life. Our proper grief at the death of a loved one affirms that truth. Our proper joy at the resurrection of Jesus celebrates it.
In everyday life, we practice resurrection by dying to self. Not as an embrace of death, but as a testament to the hope of the resurrected Christ.