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Saturday, April 11, 2020

Hope For a Tree | Holy Saturday 2020

My late father, a farmer, had a way of trimming trees that made them look like lollipops. About once a year he'd go around to the younger trees and trim them to the point that only a few branches on the top remained. It looked pretty silly, and yet he was right. As they continued to grow, the tops filled out better than they would have without the pruning, and we had really good shade trees as a result. Sometimes, though, his arboreal escapades were more frustrating. 

One year, for instance, he decided one evening before sunset that a tree next to where my mother parked her car was a nuisance. It was a boxelder maple, and they 'spit' a lot of sap. Without consulting my mother, he got the chainsaw out and cut it down. Neither she nor I were thrilled, and we expressed our displeasure. She would have preferred he discuss it with her first, although she agreed that the sap was a problem. I just didn't like losing the tree. 

Over the following weeks I observed shoots coming out of the stump, and mentioned it to my father. He said they'd never amount to anything. Still, I did some pruning of my own, trimming out the excess and leaving one strong shoot. Over the following years it grew into a tree, a direct continuation of the one that had been there in the first place. In fact, it was the very same one. 
Indeed there is hope for a tree.
If it’s cut down and still sprouting
and its shoots don’t fail, 
if its roots age in the ground
and its stump dies in the dust, 
at the scent of water, it will bud
and produce sprouts like a plant. 
But a human dies and lies there;
a person expires, and where is he?
Water vanishes from the sea
a river dries up completely.
But a human lies down and doesn’t rise
until the heavens cease;
they don’t get up and awaken from sleep.  
                               — Job 14:7-12 Common English Bible (CEB)
The Book of Job, in the Hebrew Scriptures, is notoriously untrustworthy for citations. It tells the story of a bet between God and Satan over whether Job, a just man, will crumble and deny God after losing his property, his children, and his health. It's pretty sadistic, and gets worse when Job's 'friends' show up and tell him how he's clearly guilty of some wrong-doing since he's suffered so. It goes back and forth between their terrible counsel and his lamentations. Finally, God shows up in a windstorm and basically tells him that mortals shouldn't question him.

That said, I see truth in the reading for today from Job, for this Holy Saturday. We're in the in-between time of the Gospel account, the day between Jesus' death and his resurrection. While the Hebrew Scriptures don't specifically endorse the idea of a bodily resurrection, a doctrine that developed more fully during the intertestamental period, we find it littered with vague allusions to such a thing. In light of the many very corrupt and wicked people who live long lives and die quietly in warm beds, while the marginalized suffer every day and die in hunger, disease, and poverty, one's sense of justice seems to demand a resurrection and judgement.

While the ancient Christians and many of their Jewish contemporaries looked forward to a bodily resurrection and renewed Heavens and Earth, modern Christians tend to think of what comes next as simply being a spirit in the presence of God. That notion, of course, doesn't interfere with the world as it is, and let's them maintain a dichotomy between what they know to be true through observation, and what they would like to be true through faith.

The universe, however, is indifferent to how we would like it to be.There is no hard evidence of a soul, an afterlife, or any genuine resurrections. There are ancient stories that sound like a lot of other ancient stories. Among those about Jesus there are serious discrepancies. A general resurrection of the dead and transformation of the cosmos doesn't take into account the reality of deep geologic time nor the likelihood of other sentient life in our vast universe, thus placing humanity at the center of al things, contrary to the sort of humility and God-centeredness the Christian religion calls for.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.


                                — William Shakespeare, The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158
The trees sometimes regenerate. Animals, including humans, can sometimes be resuscitated. Life, however, always has a definitive end. That's a bit part of what makes it so special.