Beyond unspeakable mysteries, Easter remains the promise of new life
Last Eastertide, five baby Carolina wrens took their first flights off the top of the cardboard tomb we made at church. Let me explain.
It started as a creative idea for our Easter Festival: we would make an empty tomb for the kids to walk in and out of, so they could see for themselves that Jesus is not there. We didn't have much to go on; none of us had ever made a tomb before. We did have one experienced artist and a lot of enthusiasm, as well as a small model tomb we used during our Lenten program. The big tomb, we thought, would be a replica of the little one.
Our materials were simple: cardboard, brown contract paper, spray paint and lots and lots of masking tape. We cut three big boxes - originally used to deliver three-drawer filing cabinets to house the church's archives - into a tomb-like shape, and corralled the youth groups into scrunching up brown paper and taping it all over, to give the tomb a more textured look.
Then we spray painted the paper with a speckled gray and brown rocky color, put a cardboard slab inside with a white linen cloth draped over it, made a few rocks to go around the outside, arranged some plastic ivy on top and rolled the "stone" away from the opening. By the grace of God our final product bore a remarkable resemblance to the real thing.
The tomb was a big hit at the Easter Festival, so much so that we decided to put it out front on Easter morning. People gathered around it all morning long; they stood silently around it, peeked into it, took pictures of it. They even took comfort in it: one man who had just been through a major loss said that seeing the empty tomb as he came down the path to the church was the best part of his Easter.
After Easter, however, came a question: where are we going to store this thing? Lacking any sufficient answer, we simply let the question go and placed the tomb up against an outer wall.
Weeks went by and I finally decided that next year another youth group might enjoy making a new tomb; in other words, I decided the time had come to bury the tomb. So, on the day before Ascension Thursday, our youth director brought in his saw and we were all set to begin.
But when I went to move the tomb, a strange thing happened: a bird rustled and flew right past my head. I looked closer, and - lo and behold - I spotted a nest, with five brown-speckled eggs looking right back at me.
The tomb had taken on a life of its own, and I realized the Spirit was telling me to let go of my plan for demolition and play my part by respecting the unfolding drama before me. We moved the tomb - nest, eggs and all - back against the wall and decided to stop interfering.
The next day, the Ascension reading took on a whole new meaning for me: there is no point in "looking toward heaven" (Acts 1:11) when God calls us to pay attention to life on earth. As luck or providence would have it, our first-ever "Blessing of the Animals" was scheduled for the last Sunday of Eastertide. Completely without intention, we had a ready-made backdrop. With the tomb behind us, we sang "All Things Bright and Beautiful," read the story of Creation and then blessed those eggs first (among the 42 other animals, from a duckling to a standard poodle), saying: "Blessed be God who loves each living thing; may God bless these baby birds."
Two days later, I stopped by the tomb, and panicked. The eggs were gone. Then I listened, and I heard one of the most sacred cadences in all of God's earthly wonders: the first chirps of a newly-hatched Carolina Wren.
There are, of course, rational explanations for all of this, and there are also more lovely creatures than Carolina Wrens. As an ornithologist friend put it, baby wrens "are a bit of a disappointment if one is expecting the resurrected Christ." True enough.
Even so, these little creatures have reminded me in stunning terms that all of our Christian Education projects and programs are held in a larger story of faith whose meaning is usually diminished by words and whose promise of new life can awe us at every turn.
The Rev. Susan Steinberg is director of children's ministries at United Church of Chapel Hill in North Carolina.