Leaf Candles

photo by Katherine Brown

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

John 20:30-31, from John 20:19-31, lectionary text for Sunday after Easter.

The dogwood is emerald-candled.  Its leaves are new and small, precisely shaped, slightly flared. Glowing green.  Each leaf-pair is poised at the tip of a slender branch.  The sun shines, and the leaf-cups appear each a lit glim held aloft.   The light seems to be radiating from the leaves themselves as if they, not the sun, are the source of their shining.  Then clouds pass across the sun, and the light dims, and the leaves are again leaves.  Just leaves.  New, small, precisely shaped, slightly flared.  Flat green.

Easter evening, Jesus came and stood among the disciples, and the disciples who saw him rejoiced (John 20:19-20).  Christ-light had shone, and I imagine them radiant in its glow.

Thomas, one of the twelve, had not been with them that night.  ‘We have seen the Lord!’ the others told him.  Thomas refused the news.  See the insistent shake of his head, the stubborn hunch of his shoulders?  Thomas recites the litany of the sparks necessary to kindle his belief:  he must see, he must touch.  Not his lord — the one they said they had seen (20:25), the one with whom he had been willing to die (John 11:16) — but the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands and side.  As if the proof of resurrection is in the marks of suffering.  Only if Thomas can encounter the body that he knows was broken will he believe that his Lord has risen.

So obdurate is Thomas’s resistance to his fellows’ joy that I wonder at his presence when, a week later, the disciples are again in the house (20:26).  Thomas is with them.  He had seemed to feel their resurrection report of Easter evening was more injury than invitation.  In the face of their joy, he had insisted on his loss.  But the following week, he was among them.  Did he come because of the others’ witness or in spite of it?  Did they welcome him in hope their joy would spark his own or because all of them together, in joy or in pain, were Christ’s own?  Is it their welcome, even?  Or is it reunion, and Christ the welcoming host?

Is it about the leaves or the light?

A week after Easter, Jesus stood among them and told Thomas to see and to touch.  ‘Do not be unbelieving but believing,’ Jesus says (20:27).  Thomas is shaken out of the fixedness of his disbelief by this encounter with Jesus’ nail-marked body.  ‘My Lord and my God!’ he exclaims (20:28).  ‘You have seen me,’ Jesus tells Thomas, then Jesus tells all of us after, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen but believe’ (20:29).  John’s gospel continues Jesus’ address to us with a reference to its own body, the thing ‘written so that you may believe …’ (20:31).

A body pierced by nails, twisted on a cross; broken by the world to overcome the world.  A community still claiming more than it lives, striving to live what it claims, falling short and having to try again and again.  Things written in a distant idiom — vocabulary, grammar, imagery — that must be learned and studied and read again and again.  A world of bodies.  Each in some way marked, twisted.  None complete.

Don’t mistake the leaves for the light.  Don’t mis-order the priorities.  Do recognize the relationship.

The clouds pass away, and the sun shines full.  Again, the dogwood is emerald-candled, each leaf-pair lit from within, seeming to show its true self, its very life.  

The daylight lets me see the dogwood leaves.  The leaves make that light visible as it otherwise would not be.  The leaves let me see the light.

People; pages.  Inadequate bodies all around.  Yet somehow the proof of Easter shows through these bodies that together — written, reading, lit, radiant, alive — make resurrection visible.

Gracious encounter.  That you may believe and, believing, have life.

Bodies together; Body alive

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” 

Ezekiel 37:1-6; excerpt from Ezekiel 37:1-14, lectionary text for Sunday March 29, 2020

Tuesdays and Thursdays, I am up before light and I drive to Baltimore to teach.   Tuesdays and Thursdays, I get to the campus in time to walk across to the chapel before my first class, in time to go in and sit in its dim, in time to be bathed in the blue light of the great rose window above the altar, quieted by the quiet of the space, murmuring my heart to the listening silence.

Except now I don’t.  I don’t drive to Baltimore.  I don’t walk to the chapel.  I don’t sit in its sacred space.  Which shouldn’t matter.  God is not more present in that mystic-blue-rose-windowed sanctuary than in my florescent-lit basement, where now I sit and log on to Zoom, and see my students on Tuesdays and Bible study on Wednesdays and church on Sundays.  The physical space shouldn’t matter.  Yet it does.  Because I am a physical creature, a living being of breath and dust.  My soul needs my body’s walk across the green, the opening of the door, the entry in through the narthex, the encounter with that amazing blue glow.  These days, none of that can I have.

So I take my body upstairs to my bedroom desk.  I sit my body down and I open my book.  The light through the window is milk-pale in this grey day.  I take my pen in hand and set it to the page; I watch and hear the line of writing take shape — the black ink forming letters, the slight whispery scritch of pen’s progress across the paper.  Creating a space in which to listen, a space in which to be heard.  A valley for encounter.  Bodies all together:  me and the page and Ezekiel and God and the bones.

Ezekiel among the exiles, all of them having been carried off by an invading army, removed far away from the place the LORD had planted them, and ‘scattered’ among the nations.  Their home had fallen, city and temple and all. The ways they had experienced the LORD’s presence before were no longer available.

‘The hand of the LORD came upon me and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD’ — God’s body and the prophet’s body intersecting.  The ‘hand’ (in Hebrew a feminine noun) comes upon the prophet.  The LORD (‘he’) brings out the prophet by the spirit — ruach, a noun that recurs throughout the passage, translated ‘spirit’ (37:1, 14), ‘breath’ (37:5, 9, 10), and ‘wind’ (37:9) — and ‘rests’ the prophet in the valley.  A ‘valley’ filled with bones.  Many bones; very dry.  These are not even bodies anymore, but bones, sere and scattered.  

Where is the valley?  It is not the place where the exiles live.  What is the valley?  It is neither ‘wilderness’ nor ‘garden.’  It is something else, somewhere away, liminal.  The valley is the place of divine encounter — a happening so potent that the prophet’s body is significantly moved, whether falling on his face, lifted to his feet, brought up, set down, led around and around (37:2).  The prophet circumambulates the bones; listens to the LORD; is called to prophesy until bones are reassembled and re-enfleshed (37:8), until breath (spirit, wind) comes into them, and they stand erect and live, ‘a vast multitude’ (37:10), the ‘whole house of Israel’ (37:11), the body of God’s people.  

Our faith is the stuff of bones and flesh.  Even our worship participates in this physicality.  We stand to pass the peace, to hear the gospel reading.  We bow our heads and close our eyes as the prayer is said —  to see this movement across the pews is like seeing a field ruffled by the wind.  Wind, spirit, breath.  Do our physical postures summon that breath or respond to it?  Or is the synchronicity so perfect that the movement of the spirit and of the bone comes as one?  We worship without these particular postures right now.  Yet even as we cannot now bring our bodies to the same place, we are sharing glimpses of each other’s places — dining rooms and living rooms and desks set up in bedrooms and the pets wandering in to the Zoom screen — intimate glimpses of each other’s material settings  that oddly, perversely, make us more aware of each other in as material bodies in them, of our need for material encounter.  (Zoom worship ends, and folk stay online, waving and calling greetings.)

That awareness itself has the potential to transform, to recenter and remind us that Incarnation — God’s, our own — is our core claim.  God’s ‘Word became flesh,’ a flesh we gather to eat and to be: ‘body of Christ’ names both our central meal and our gathered identity.  Ezekiel experiences it in that valley.  God’s body is as active a participant in the encounter as the prophet’s:  God’s hand; God’s speech; God’s breath.  Then God’s words and the prophet’s voice together (Ezekiel prophesying as commanded, 37:7, 10) raising the bones into bodies, reviving the bodies into Body, the whole house of Israel, the entire people of God. 

Pause in my writing.  Look out the window.  Think further. God’s body present with and through us.  God’s body present as us.  Not because God needs our bodies in order to be present in the world or even sufficient in God-self, but because God does not want to be body without us.  The whole of us. 

Ezekiel’s valley is bodies brought together, transformed — the prophet’s caught up and called to walk around and speak aloud (‘Prophesy to these bones’), the bones revived into the living multitude, the whole house.  Ezekiel’s valley is here, and now.  We are newly aware of ourselves as bodies, newly aware of ourselves as Body, that awareness of ourselves accompanying encounter with the LORD.  The next movement is already promised:  we shall live (37:6, 14).