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Garbage and Flowers: A Post-Easter Reflection

So another Easter has come and gone and I’ve been reflecting on themes of “new life” and “resurrection.”  Every Easter we hear words like these proclaimed in churches and we do our best to embrace the hope of the risen Christ.  This past Sunday, I was the one proclaiming these words.  But do they mean anything?  Do they point to anything substantive about what actually has happened, what can happen now, and what will happen in the future?  Are words like “resurrection” and “new life” just Christian catch-phrases that are in practice little more than a thinly religious veneer over ordinary concepts like self-help, fresh starts, and second chances?

I was thinking about these things on my morning run today—and they were crystallized when I saw a sight that would have been a spectacularly ordinary one any other time of the year.  It was one lonely garbage can by the side of the street in our neighbourhood.

Perhaps the significance of my morning observation is not immediately apparent, so let me elaborate.  In our neighbourhood, garbage is collected on Tuesday mornings.  Except when then there is a statutory holiday.  Like Easter, for example.  Statutory holidays alter the schedule.  Our garbage will now be picked up on Thursdays until the next holiday changes things up.  Almost everyone on our street was aware of this.  But someone, apparently, hadn’t noticed.

While I obviously have no idea about the specifics of the transgressing household’s Easter observance or lack thereof, the sight of the garbage container by the curb was symbolic for me in a couple of ways.  First, it symbolized a culture where Easter is either ignored, forgotten, or trivialized and commercialized.  Easter comes and goes and we barely notice.  We put our garbage out, just like every other Tuesday.  It’s business as usual.  Life carries on, as it always does.  Easter is irrelevant in our postmodern, post-Christian context.  It doesn’t change anything and it’s good for little more than an extra day off work.

But secondly, and more significantly, this lonely garbage container reminded me that life always, inevitably goes back to normal and “normal” always contains its share of garbage.  To take the garbage metaphor from the municipal to the existential level, those of us who celebrate Easter do so in the full knowledge that the coming year will contain its share of struggles and trials.  None of our lives are garbage-free.

There are few Sundays of the Christian year more enjoyable to preach on than Easter Sunday.  But I was painfully aware, as I surveyed the faces of our community from the front of the church two days ago, that many of those listening to my words about resurrection and new life had either been through or were presently in the middle of varying forms and degrees of garbage.  I looked out and I saw lives ravaged by cancer and other diseases, families struggling with the fallout of addiction, mental illness, and suicide, lives touched by the economic downturn… And those were just the stories I happen to be aware of.

How does resurrection talk sound when you’re surrounded by garbage?

Of course there’s nothing very new about this question or the picture in general.  The hope of resurrection has always been located in a world where suffering was the norm.  The promise of newness has always been spoken to people more familiar with the tragically, predictably old.  The Easter message is that there is more to the story than we see, but this message has never been proclaimed into a context where newness and hope were self-evident realities.

I took this picture this morning.  Every year during our church’s Easter Sunday service, people are invited to the front of the sanctuary to place a flower in wire netting on a wooden cross.  When the service is done, the cross is taken outside and placed in the church parking lot where it remains for 3-4 days.  Our church is located near a relatively busy intersection, so for a few days each year, this cross is what many people see as they drive by.  I can’t think of a better image I would want people to associate with our church.

It is a powerful picture.  The juxtaposition of a rugged symbol of execution with the colour and vibrancy of spring flowers is symbolically significant and moving.  Tokens of hope sticking out of the harshness of wood and wire.  This is the world we live in.  Beauty intertwined with ugliness; life in the shadow of death.

The refrain for this morning’s prayer in the prayer book I follow was Psalm 7:18:

I will bear witness that the Lord is righteous; I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.

Perhaps our church’s yearly tradition of putting the cross of flowers out in our parking lot, even for two or three days, is one way, however small, of bearing witness.  This is the church’s task—to bear witness that newness is real, it is possible, and it is coming.  Beauty is stronger than ugliness, joy is more lasting than sorrow, hope is stronger than cynicism and despair.  God is good.

And we will praise him, even when the flowers start to wilt and die and fall off our cross, as they inevitably do each year around Tuesday or Wednesday.  Even when our cross is packed up and stored away until next Easter.  Even when life goes back to normal.  Even when it is the middle of June or September or November and it seems like we’re up to ears in garbage and pain—when the flowers of spring are replaced by the scorching heat of summer or the wind and the rain of winter.  Even when we’re surrounded by garbage.

We will continue to bear witness that the hope of Easter is real and that it meets the deepest need we have.

11 Comments
  1. “..Easter is either ignored, forgotten, or trivialized and commercialized… Easter is irrelevant in our postmodern, post-Christian context.”

    “Our church is located near a relatively busy intersection, so for a few days each year, this cross is what many people see as they drive by. I can’t think of a better image I would want people to associate with our church… It is a powerful picture. The juxtaposition of a rugged symbol of execution with the colour and vibrancy of spring flowers is symbolically significant and moving. Tokens of hope sticking out of the harshness of wood and wire. This is the world we live in. Beauty intertwined with ugliness; life in the shadow of death.”

    Hey Ryan. For some time now, I’m been wondering if christian symbols like the cross are becoming (or will become) outdated symbols for our contemporary society. By this, I mean, will our society continue to get it? Will our society continue to get the ‘juxtaposition’?

    It is just as common, if not more so, that a figure of Jesus is seen nailed to the cross. But I wonder if the theological meaning in this symbol is dissipating, leaving the obvious meaning of ancient torture as more prevalent? The cross may have a long history as a symbol for Christianity, but I can’t help but wonder if the cross will end up, predominantly, symbolizing just that – something old.

    But then, what would the church replace the symbol of a cross with? And how could the idea of replacing the symbol of the cross be practically accomplished across the globe?

    April 6, 2010
    • I think as long as Christianity is around the cross will remain a powerful symbol. I can’t imagine how (or why) the church would replace it as a central symbol. I don’t think it’s outdated at all. People still resonate with it, even some with little formal connection to the church. Our church has an illuminated cross as a part of our tower. In the past, people have complained if the church leaves it unlit at night. These people rarely, if ever, darken the door of our church, but seeing that cross is important to them, apparently.

      I don’t see any evidence that people have a harder time “getting” the cross now than they ever have. Some see it as an offensive symbol, some see it as a hopeful one, and lots of people are somewhere in between. I suspect it’s been this way since the beginning.

      April 6, 2010
  2. “people have complained if the church leaves it unlit at night”

    From an urban planning perspective…. it would be nice if all such lights were off. How much more beautiful would the night sky be with the minimal amount of light pollution.

    April 6, 2010
  3. It is interesting how a narrative shapes and is shaped by perception and ideology.
    “While I obviously have no idea about the specifics of the transgressing household’s Easter observance or lack thereof…
    …Easter is irrelevant in our postmodern, post-Christian context. It doesn’t change anything and it’s good for little more than an extra day off work.”
    Your story can be told another way. Your story can be told as the evidence of the pervasive influence of Christendom in our cultural/civic lifestyle. The garbage can is a lonely symbol of the conformity that people have first to the mandates of civil etiquette in disposing of garbage and second to the respect still afforded a centrally Christian holiday in an otherwise pluralistic society. If on your run you had encountered no garbage cans transgressing the civil code – it would have remained completely unremarkable. Yet just becuase all garbage can were neatly stowed away for the approriate date one would hardly think to build an argument about how conformist the neighbourhood was or how respectful they were of the Christian holiday. But one lone garbage can is the very field that reveals that the other all the others are in fact conforming to the social prescription.
    And here is the kicker since you make the claim that the lone garbage can is symbolic evidence of the irrelevance of Easter in the public sphere, the opposite can also be argued. Since the lone garbage can in fact reveals the conformity of all the other residents it could be noted that with the exception of this one offending resident, Easter is in fact relevant and somehow important even if it is not important for the ‘right’ reasons.
    This other telling of the story points to an important aspect of the narrative tragectory – it shows in fact that illustratively a story is necessarily under suspicion since it reveals the power of the teller to co-opt the events to accomplish the objective. This second telling of the story is equally as fraught with suspicion as the first one. What is left then is an analysis of the story and its connection to the teller and to the channels of control that the story affords. Who is advantaged by the telling of the story in this way? What does this story say about the speaker?
    I should say that I really appreciate the message of your post. Your ability to draw the significance of hope within not outside of our ‘garbage’ experience is an important message that avoids the escapism of much of the Easter message that is often given.

    April 7, 2010
    • Yes, the story can certainly be told in more than one way. As always, a lot depends on the perspective one brings. I suppose that in my case, my perspective will always be shaped by my ongoing interest in how the gospel is communicated in a mostly secular culture. A good chunk of my entire academic career has been spent wrestling with/writing about secularism/atheism, in one form or another. I live and work in one of the most secular regions of Canada. A lot of what I say or write is filtered through the grid of “how would this look/sound to secular eyes/ears?” I suppose all of this factors into how I interpret innocuous sightings like lonely garbage cans at the side of the road :).

      (I should say that I’m not quite as cynical as you seem to be about the inherent suspicion that ought to attend our evaluation of narratives. It’s not like we have the option of not allowing our perspective to shape how we communicate anything. All communication is necessarily perspectival, after all.)

      April 7, 2010
      • agreed narrative can only be from a perspective.
        the suspicion is not whether or not there is a perspective but rather how that perspective is connected to the exercise of power.
        i am certainly not interested in challenging the nuances that your secular sensitivity provides. i know that the wary eye of suspicion grows with every advance of pluralism and with good cause. our social framework is at risk of losing meaning if we are not careful.
        however, it is fascinating to me how the tassles of Christendom still flutter in the winds of our secular society. it is hard to dispute that Christianity has left an indelible mark on how our society is structured. i would go so far as to claim that the telltale marks still inform more of our social sensibility than any other significant ideological frame. for me pulling on the tassles and dusting off these markers provides strong evidence of the power that Christian thought still exerts on our society. unfortunately Christendom has as many horrifying offspring as it has beautiful ones. for me if there is a wary eye to be cast at the advance of secularism then the other one might do well to keep watch over the way the Christian legacy is continuing to exert influence on our society (especially those unsavory influences).

        April 7, 2010
      • Should we also be suspicious of how power is exercised in the narratives of deconstruction? 🙂

        (Of course, I agree with you—it is good and necessary to critically evaluate the stories we tell, the perspectives at work in their telling, and how they are interpreted.)

        April 8, 2010
  4. Thanks Ryan – helpful thoughts for integrating our Easter celebration realistically and authentically in our Christian lives year-round, individually and as churches. Oh, and the flowered cross is also a favorite symbol of mine.

    April 7, 2010
  5. One lonely garbage can while others rest.

    One (Christian) college in session while the others rest….

    April 7, 2010
    • My condolences, Travis. Stay strong…

      April 7, 2010

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