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.