The Resurrection of Irises

Would Easter make sense in the dead of summer or the dark of winter? The specificity with which it falls in the year—tracking the dates He prescribed for the Passover festival—convinces me that God is delighted to have the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection be at the turning of the seasons.

It is spring for us in the Northern Hemisphere (as it was for Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem), autumn on the other side of the world, and often in the midst of the shift from dry to rainy in the tropics. The jarring reality of defeated death is timed to catch our attention in some visceral way. Violent shifts in weather, the transitions of plants, even the behavior of insects, participate in this liturgical choreography.

Something is coming. Something is passing away. Everything is different now. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is alive. Christ is coming again.

In “Seven Stanzas at Easter”, John Updike says that Christ’s resurrection “was not as the flowers, each soft Spring recurrent.” The singularity of God the Son being revealed as the firstborn from the dead can’t be captured by simple metaphors of life re-emerging from winter dormancy. The flowers weren’t dead, just waiting.

Yes, we mark Christ’s resurrection every year, but it is on a whole other level than the guaranteed return of seasonal vegetation. Still, I don’t want to rush past the floral metaphor with the same hand wave Updike gives, on either botanical or theological grounds.

Here in Tennessee, irises are the grammar of spring. Irises of every shade and shape imaginable. They love it here, and we love them (it’s the state flower). The one in the small brick bed next to our driveway is my favorite, both for its outlandish style—garish purple, almost fuchsia, falls fading to auburn-on-white zebra stripes toward a golden beard under pale lavender standards—and for its understated resilience

When we bought our house in 2007, the grounds were a portrait of neglect, unkempt shrubs protruding at odd angles from knee-deep leaves killing the grass. That first spring, these irises came up all over the yard, without rhyme or reason. Not wanting to cut them down when I mowed the grass, we gathered them up, transplanting them all into that one bed. They survived the upheaval, but did not bloom again for at least 5 years. Eventually, they did spring back to flourishing.

Irises have pedigrees, records of centuries of cultivation to produce minute variations, all catalogued by institutions like the Royal Horticultural Society or American Iris Society. As near as I can tell, these are a variety called ‘Fabian’, first attested by an English gardener named Salter in 1868. The variety was listed by the AIS as “obsolete” in 1939. But here in 2023, beside a house built in 1960, they bloom with reckless abundance each April—a testament against exaggerated reports of their demise.

Once hybridized to a gardener’s specification, irises are set and shared by propagation through the multiplication and division of rhizomes. As with many garden plants, every iris that is a distinct varietal is a clone, a continuously living part of a part of a part of that first plant that some gardener thought was just perfect. Our “resurrected” Fabians are a testimony to this long-dead Mr. or Ms. Salter looking at the first bloom of their new variety and pronouncing it “good.” I do not know how they made it to our corner of Tennessee, or who else along the way thought they were “good” too, to keep passing them on, but they are a gift.

I could have the ID on these wrong (they didn’t come with papers), but whatever cultivar they are, they speak a testimony to life and love bursting forth from long ago. And this is where my tweak on Updike’s poem rests—most plants are not merely “recurrent”, but continuous, connected to past years’ growth by a continuous chain of DNA and stored sugars. They are kept alive year after year in the complex dance of ecosystems, or by the loving hands of nursery workers.

In this way, the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection points to ours as well. According to the Apostle Paul, Christ’s resurrection was how, through the spirit of holiness he was declared with power to be the Son of God (Rom. 1:4). The body of the man Jesus Christ that died was raised to life and is seated at the right hand of the Father. God made incorruptible flesh forever. That part is the miracle, the point of Updike’s poem. At another level (what Paul is getting at, I think), of course God almighty could never die, so the resurrection of Christ is in some sense “expected” once we recognize his divinity. Resurrection is the proof that Jesus is God. This speaks to continuity of life, such that Paul can say in another letter that all things hold together in Christ (Col. 1:15-17).

The power that raised Christ’s body from the dead is the same power that gave his body life in Mary’s womb. It is the same power that gave Mary life as well; the same power that made the world; the same power that brings flashes of purple and yellow from a starchy underground tomb in my yard each spring. It is the same power at work in every moment of every day of every life, upholding the universe by a word (Heb. 1:3) and working it toward final glory in the midst of every unspeakable brokenness wrought by evil.

I need these flowers at Easter as a ritual reminder of new life, a sacramental blow to my retina each time I walk out the door that engages the gears of theology with the churning mass of thoughts and emotions that overflow my heart and mind and mouth. I need the unsought abundance of wonder packed into each blossom because I can’t make it through a day of reading the news, listening to the pain of friends, or cowering before my own lack of control and inability to meet life’s constant demands without it. 

God knows I am weak, and He sends flowers. They speak a sliver of His goodness in such a way that I can’t help but remember all of it. It’s often considered unbecoming of men in the violent culture of the United States to be moved to emotion and action by beauty, but it is how God made us. I can’t stop fawning over irises and every other created thing that crosses my path because I refuse to be “embarrassed by the miracle” as Updike cautions. The God who raised Christ to life is the God of irises and springtimes because He is pleased to be so. He said, “I am making everything new!” and lest we forget, He makes it new in small ways every day. I’m trying to write this down, as instructed, because these things are trustworthy and true. And all creation is groaning in participation.

In the Interests of Public Health

Stay at home, and please,
Whatever you do,
Don’t let your house go
Wandering away
With or without you.
Shelter in place,
Even if that place
Happens to be a
Bathtub or closet
Or a nearby ditch.
Keep working from home—
And the Internet
Or a place to sit
To help your neighbors
In their hour of need,
Please don’t employ your
Chainsaw, tarps, and tools,
But stay far away.
Don’t let the germs have
A chance to run through
The erstwhile forest
To sow disaster
And reap the whirlwind.

Image: Tornado Damage, Hamilton county, Tennessee, April 2020.

Window watching

What do you do to fight the rainy-day blues,
To push through the mud, the flood, and thunder
When it’s always spring but never Easter?

At the window watching lightning flicker—
The power, too—feel the pane as it shakes.
What do you do to fight the rainy-day blues?

New life for flowers, snails, mushrooms, and you?
You search in hope for new growth but it seems
That it’s always spring but never Easter.

Each drop’s surface tension is soft heartbreak,
Alone, trapped from within and without, but
That’s how life is with the rainy-day blues.

Like March, love warms and cools and warms again
And the future is clear as mountain fog
When it’s always spring but not yet Easter.

Glory in the mundane. Praise faithful work.
Do the next thing. Rest in what’s done for you.
That’s the way to fight the rainy-day blues—
For right now it’s spring, and soon it’s Easter.

Image: Redbuds, Walker County, Georgia, March 2020.

With Fear and Great Joy

With fear and great joy
They ran to tell.

          If your kind and faithful friend had died
          A gruesome death and then said, “Good morning!”
          From behind as you went to put flowers
          On their fresh-tilled grave, what would you do?

Where do you run
With fear and great joy?

          How is a new world announced? “Do not fear”
          Whispered with power, growing, rippling out
          To hill and hollow, city, field, and slum
          With the holy whiplash of redemption.

With fear and great joy
You catch your breath.

          Frozen with longing for something not yet,
          Glass-eyed, like a road-killed coyote in
          The unfinished howl of rigor mortis.
          Truth is the hardest story to swallow.

What do you see
Through fear and great joy?

          Each friendship is resurrection practice,
          Reaching for love and faith and hope and rest
          Knowing full-well that time and space and sin
          And death challenge every effort, but still

With fear and great joy
You hold them tight.

          Darkness first fell in the garden light made.
          Hope wept in a garden after midnight,
          And life proved new in a garden at dawn.
          Can oaks of righteousness rise from dry bones

With fear and great joy,
Running to tell?