Last month I shared the story in worship of St. John of Egypt, a saint in the Christian Coptic tradition who lived during the time of the wars between the East and Western Roman Empires. He was a renowned holy man and his story includes an odd detail.
Apparently, when he was young in faith, his spiritual teacher asked him to water a dead stick every day as if it were alive. This he apparently did with all obedience for at least a year. The stories are fragmented. Some tell us he watered a dead tree rather than a stick, other stories do not mention a stick or tree at all, and still others say that this tree he tended eventually grew and flourished.
When I first heard this story I had very little patience for it. It seemed to be a stupid, pointless waste of time and, as someone recently pointed out, what a waste of good water in the desert. The story, however, has grown on me. I have found it crops up over and over again in my reflective life.
One such time was the year I was first serving as a pastor of a church. I was brand new to ministry and had the blessing of a learning group to help me. Our small band of newbies was nurtured by a very wise longtime pastor who loved and challenged us, drawing us ever patiently farther into the sacrednesses of parish and reflective life.
It was during a meeting of this group that we had a dead-stick conversation I shall never forget. We were preparing for Easter and all of us were in the midst of preparing to bridge the sacred space from holy week to Easter morning. Our teacher usually had some kind of set up at the center of our space from which we could draw elements during our conversation. That day there were sticks and stones at the center, and from that pile I drew a pine stick.
I can still see the nubby bark and broken edges of the stick I held. We were talking about death and resurrection, and as the conversation warmed I realized that I, like the others in the circle, really held onto the idea that when the man Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, he didn’t really die, not really, not totally, not dead as in really, really dead. But as I listened to the conversation and held that stick the reality of Jesus’s death really hit me. The blows he endured were real. And the death that came for him was real, as well.
Jesus died on that cross. Jesus really died. It was not a farce, a play, or some divine ruse or misadventure. God did not, does not, and will not play pretend with the forces of life and death. Jesus lived fully and vitally and died just as completely, in every real sense. Jesus came face to face with the most heartless powers of the world, faced brutal, violent suppression, and then he died. Like the stick I was holding, all aliveness in him left.
Jesus died on that cross, every bit of death came to claim him that day. But even fully in the grasp of that claw there were cosmic forces far more powerful at work. The Love that is God is irreconcilable with anything but perfect life—cosmic life, divine life. We humans struggle to find words to describe it but the tighter death closed its fist, the more deeply Love bit into it and the smaller its influence became. In Jesus the Christ the very forces of fear and oppression that had been set loose forced a reaction from the power of good that could not be contained and would not submit.
Jesus died on that cross. Jesus entered fully into death, every ounce of the reality of that cup he drank to the full. Because of this work of God, love was placed fully at the center of the cosmos. Because of this work of God there is no place Good cannot reach and no river in which Love does not flow. Christ is the living being who changed everything. We as a resurrection people are a living celebration of the total restoration, total perfection, and total unmitigated power of God. The risen Christ of Easter is so much more than a miraculous appearance. What we learned that day was that even death must die when faced with God.
I don’t look at sticks the same way anymore. In my gaze there is more wonder than there used to be. In my heart I see what is dead—perhaps it even crumbles in my hands, or crushes underfoot—as death awaiting life. For in death is that space where we await the next big thing that God will do.
When it comes to the story of St. John, I now appreciate its call to contemplate the powers of God to bring life from lifelessness. It is so very easy to imagine that death isn’t really real, or final, or worth any contemplation at all. Or, perhaps, there is the temptation to take the power of resurrection too much upon ourselves. Armed with our faith, our goodwill, and our energetic productivity, we imagine that it is we ourselves who can raise a dead stick and make it live again. But the truth is that we have no such power. That power belongs exclusively to God. As for us, it is enough that we water the stick with obedient hearts, and watch in faithfulness for resurrection.
Blessings to you!
Red Leaf by Jayme Frye 2007 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Earth in the hands by Arthur S. Rowan Flickr 2013 CC BY-NC 2.0