Joe marvels over the constancy of nature in a post-Easter essay.
Among the many controversies of the early Christian church was the date of Easter. In the first centuries, many Christians celebrated it on Passover. If Easter fell on a Wednesday, so be it. But a Pope began excommunicating those who followed this approach. As the years passed, the date of Easter varied by region and bishop until the Council of Nicea in 325. The council decided that Easter should always take place on the first Sunday following the first full moon of the vernal equinox. Simple enough. Except that because of the eventual split between the Eastern and Western churches—and how each division uses calendars—the ideal of a unified Easter celebration happens only sporadically. In 2020, for example, Western Christians (Catholics, Protestants) marked Easter a few days ago. Much of the Orthodox church will celebrate next Sunday.
In setting Easter, the church tied itself to something constant—the cycles of the moon and the crossing of the sun into the northern hemisphere. This cycle is predictable, though our attempts to mark it—in the Julian calendar or Gregorian—or in the calendars of Babylon, Islam, and Judaism—we make a mess of something simple. We sometimes struggle with aligning ourselves to constancy.
For those of us on the Western calendar, Holy Week coincided with Passover this year, mimicking the New Testament timeline of Jesus’ Passion. Thursday night—Maundy Thursday in the Christian Holy Week—happened on Passover. And yet, whatever cycle or moon or calendar we followed to mark these celebrations, none of us celebrated in the usual way. Apart from those rogue churches or synagogues doing drive-in services, Jews and Christians stayed home. Our family, for example, celebrated Passover with the YouTube feed of JewBelong. We celebrated Easter with a Portland church on Zoom. On our couch. With a dog.
The church’s pastor, one Brady Bunch square among dozens of others, noted the unusualness of a broadband Easter. This Easter without choir, hugs, or sacraments ran counter to every Easter he—or we—had known.
These peculiarities, though, helped the pastor illuminate the generally overlooked peculiarities in the Gospel of Mark. The disciples at the first Easter didn’t run out singing and proclaiming to everyone who would listen, “He is risen,” expecting an echo, “He is risen indeed.” Rather, they responded with fear, bewilderment, and trembling. They hid. They cowered in confusion and terror. In fact, it may be that our usual celebratory Easters have less in common with the first Easter than this year’s muted, anxious, sheltered one did.
This sheltering in place—in the first Easter and in this last one—brought the pastor to offer solace in something that feels somehow lacking at the moment: constancy. That God, in the resurrection, was constant. The resurrection happened regardless of whether the disciples expected it or celebrated it. Whether anyone believed it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone understood it, Jesus rose. Whether anyone rushed off evangelizing or hiding, Jesus rose. The resurrection was an act of the constancy of God, running on its own calendar and pattern, indifferent to human consent or circumstance.
This constancy, though, ran counter to the natural constancy—that, usually, dead people stay dead. The living people, then, who heard that story had to choose between which constancy to follow: the constancy of nature or the constancy of God. Humans have a unique ability to choose between such things.
During this Lenten-Plague I’ve developed more appreciation for the flexibility of humanity and the constancy of the natural order. We humans are adjusting our lives, upending our societies and customs, changing our normals, jettisoning so much of what we believed defined us. Cathedrals that have never closed are now closed. Restaurants and factories that survived the wars of the Twentieth Century are abandoned. Eons of routine and constancy have, through government policy and citizen cooperation, been interrupted. All because we, humans, are inconstant—or, to say it more affirmingly, because we can adjust to new constancies.
There is, outside my quarantine window, a Japanese maple tree, a petite tree with the distinctive leaves that resemble the leaves of every other maple. Except the leaves are small. At full span, they are roughly the diameter of a plum. For most of the last few months, the maple has been barren, even weeks after the magnolia across the street bloomed brightly in pink and white. Even now as that same magnolia has dropped most of its petals. The Japanese maple is full. By some process, some act of constancy, it has returned to the form it had when I first met it. It looks alive. But if I keep watching out this window, by October, those leaves will turn red and orange and look like flame and, finally, fall. Because this is what Japanese maples do. They are constant.
I drove my sons back to Washington on Easter Sunday, and the corridor between Portland and Biggs, Oregon was greener and bolder than it had been on the Sunday before, when I had picked them up. Multnomah Falls flowed, as it always had. Yet, with the parks closed, it seemed both beautiful and sad, like an actress performing to an empty room. Just as all the earth, in its constancy, flows and blooms and dies and comes back regardless of whether anyone watches. There are, of course, interruptions—fires and droughts and earthquakes. But these, unless through human intrusion, are often acts of constancy—the constancy of tectonic plates, the constancy of storms. And the constancy of trees compel the forests back to life.
The pastor’s idea of constancy brought to mind one of my favorite poems, “The Hound of Heaven,” by the nineteenth-century Catholic poet, Francis Thompson. In that poem, Thompson likens God to a pack of hounds pursuing a man. The man, hoping to evade the hounds, calls out to nature to hide him. He cries out to the dawn, to the evening, to the forces and creatures of nature. But they fail him because they are constant. Instead, he says to the night, the “he/his” of this passage referring to the pursuing God:
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy….
Nature, whether a Japanese maple, a waterfall, or a virus, is constant in its indifference. Nature has a blind and unending loyalty—albeit a mindless one—to the god of Nature. Nature carries on in its cycles and instances, apparently unaware or uncaring about whether it has an audience. The great sequoias of California stood here long before there was a camera to film them. And, in this, they show their greatest strengths and weakness. Their constancy, their indifference, means they never squabble about calendars. It means, too, that they cannot adapt so easily to how we change their environment or introduce predators. The koalas, victims of the great fires in Australia, are also victims of their diet—they eat only eucalyptus just as pandas eat only bamboo. When the eucalyptus is wiped out or the bamboo destroyed, they will pass. They are constant, and their constancy preserves them until their constancy fails them. Though, too, as Thompson’s poem notes, nature’s constancy means it can never rebel; only humans are capable of this. Rebellion is a form of adaptation.
Before the Plague, I was invited to Pascha, the Orthodox Church’s celebration of Easter. As we got closer to the date, inevitably, news came that Pascha would not be held next weekend as planned. The church, though, had received permission to celebrate after the shutdown ends. The ceremonial aspect of Easter, apparently, was too significant to cancel; so the church suspended it. I have conflicting feelings about this re-scheduling, as I have had about most adjustments and suspensions and substitutions brought on by the Lenten-Plague. On one hand, I find this hopeful: that the church expects things to return to the old normal, which, I guess, is the essence of being Orthodox. And yet, maybe, in forcing the celebration—on moving the date—it has done a deeply inconstant thing. To me, adapting a celebration away from the method of Nicea or the constancy of the moon and the vernal equinox is the most unorthodox thing to do. Though, maybe, I get some little joy in watching the Orthodox—the people who advertise their constancy—doing something deeply human: adapting.
I wonder if, at least for now, it is best for us to adapt to the current constancy of the natural world. Typically, we fight against it. We turn forests into lumber, meadows into housing developments, mineral deposits into fuel. When the Lenten-Plague began, I thought it was our obligation to fight against hiding, to fight against governments and scientists who wanted us to close our churches. I, still, am not sure that closing so easily was the right thing. But, perhaps we are asked to do what the witnesses to the first Easter were asked to do—to accept that one constancy overrides another. In that first Easter, the constancy of God overrides the constancy of death. In this one, the constancy of nature—in the form of a virus—overrides the constancy of our economy, our habits, and our celebrations. The virus, following its structure, will spread until it can’t spread anymore. It has no other choice. It cannot choose to not be a virus. It cannot choose to show mercy or justice. It is as indifferent as Multnomah Falls or the Japanese maple.
But we can choose. We have choices. We can recognize when constancy is interrupted, even by a constancy. We can understand lightning igniting a forest, a volcano engulfing a stream, or a dead man leaving a tomb. And in our ability to recognize, in our ability to adapt, we show our wisdom and our greatest strength—or perhaps our greatest weakness—the thing that will either save us or destroy us: the constancy of our inconstancy.
Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com