I have always resisted the urge to preach an Easter sermon about the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the butterfly. These are, indeed, ancient Christian symbols of rebirth, but these days they are also in the same category as the “Starfish” story and other such memes that appear on gauzy inspirational posters, bumper stickers, and Facebook postings. Or else, our cultural image of the caterpillar is from Walt Disney. I’m personally reminded of Squeaks, the caterpillar in The Fox and the Hound. Throughout the film (which was released when I was nine-years-old and is thus my favorite Disney movie), Squeaks evades two cartoon birds, and at the end he emerges from his cocoon as a grinning purple winged butterfly Squeaks, giving the audience a warm and fuzzy feeling. You can see, I think, why I have avoided this symbol in Easter sermons. The chrysalis is too easy. It doesn’t challenge, and its comfort is of the feather pillow kind.
But I gave the chrysalis a second thought this year, after hearing last January an edition of one my favorite podcasts, Radiolab from New York Public Radio.[i] The episode is entitled “Black Box,” and it focuses on, well, black boxes, those liminal, in-between spaces, where you see what goes in, you see that something different comes out, but what happens in the middle is a mystery. At that, it strikes me, is the crux of Easter. The tomb to which Mary Magdalene and the other women travel this very morning is the ultimate black box.
On Good Friday, just two days ago, Jesus was lifted, already bloodied and broken, onto a crossbeam of wood, where he was further taunted and derided as he slowly asphyxiated. By the time Friday’s sunlight was waning, Jesus would’ve been scarcely recognizable, even to his mother and few remaining friends. Through the rather pristine images on crucifixes we forget that, I think. Jesus’ face, indeed, his tongue, would have been grossly swollen, his body contorted and bruised, with shoulders almost certainly wrenched from their sockets. Jesus didn’t just die. He died horribly. And because the day was failing and it took Joseph of Arimathea some time to convince Pilate the Governor to release Jesus’ body, Jesus was rushed, unanointed and unceremoniously, into the tomb. The rock was rolled in front of the opening, enclosing the corpse of Jesus in utter darkness—in a black box—and there it lay until this morning.
I’ve always had an idea in my mind’s eye what happens in a chrysalis, when the caterpillar cocoons himself away from the light of the world, when he rolls the stone in front of his tiny tomb. It is, I have imagined, the closed-door version of what happens to the tadpole. First, little legs sprout from the caterpillar’s body. Then his soft, inch-worm skin gains its rigidity. Finally, gossamer wings emerge from his caterpillar back. And when the chrysalis cracks open to the light, the beautiful butterfly flies to the heavens. The action in the chrysalis is, I have always and hopefully assumed, a gentle metamorphosis from one thing into another.
It isn’t so. In Radiolab’s podcast, biologist Andrei Sourakov takes a day-old chrysalis and slices it open. Inside, there is no caterpillar. There is no butterfly. There is no halfway thing, like a tadpole. There is nothing resembling an animal at all, no head, legs, or spine. The content of the chrysalis is a white and oozy goo. It turns out, when the caterpillar enters its tomb, cells rupture. Muscle dissolves. All that is left is an amino acid and protein soup. The biologist calls what happens to the caterpillar “cataclysmic and catastrophic.” It is a violent change, an utterly disruptive change.
After hearing Radiolab’s podcast, try as I might I can no longer bring to mind the cartoon image of a Disney butterfly as the norm anymore. And the symbol resonates anew for me this Easter. In order to emerge from the chrysalis, in order to enable a new birth of beauty and wonder, the caterpillar must first be entirely broken, even destroyed. The caterpillar experiences its own Good Friday.
But there’s more. Biologists at Georgetown have conducted experiments in which they condition caterpillars to respond to attractive and repulsive odors and then allow those caterpillars to enter the chrysalis. Amazingly, when the butterflies emerge in new life, they retain the same attraction and repulsion to the same smells. Do you get that? Even though they, as caterpillars, are dissolved in their tomb, somehow something of them remains when they are reconstituted and reborn. They are a new thing, but the old thing is not lost.
And there’s even more. When biologists study young caterpillar anatomy, they discover that within the caterpillar, long before it enters the chrysalis, live the microscopic seeds of butterflies wings. Even before the caterpillar’s destruction, the future self already lives within.
Easter is about Jesus, and the truths of the chrysalis are present in him. When Jesus emerges from the black box of the tomb, the change is cataclysmic. What was broken has been restored; what was dead has been gloriously resurrected. When Mary meets Jesus, she does not even recognize the man she buried two days hence, this time not because of the brokenness of Jesus’ body, but because of the wonder of his rebirth.
And yet, we soon learn, even in rebirth the wounds on Jesus’ hands and feet remain. His is new life, but evidence of the old life, the Jesus known and loved by Mary and the others, is still present.
And yet, as we learned in the Epiphany season just weeks ago, there were glimpses of the resurrected Jesus even before his Passion: at his baptism, on the Mount of Transfiguration. Even then, the seed of resurrection dwelt within him.
Easter is about Jesus, and all of these things are true of him. But Easter is also about us, and they are true of us as well. These truths give us both pause and promise. We say, again and again, that we must walk the Way of the Passion. But this is not merely a liturgical observance. If we are to experience Easter, if we are to share in Resurrection, in our lives we must walk the Way of the Passion. That, indeed, should give us pause. We must experience Good Friday. We must be willing to be dissolved of those things to which we cling, of those things that threaten to put us in the spiritual—and sometimes earthly—grave to decay rather than rebirth. We must enter the black box that is inky dark and whose other side we cannot clearly see. Indeed, some of us may be in the black box even now. We may, in various ways in our lives, be experiencing the cataclysm.
But, oh, how Easter is worth Good Friday! How the experience of the black box is worth the promise! The promise is that the tombstone will roll away. The chrysalis will crack open. We will emerge from Good Friday with the Son of God into new life. And when we do, the best and good of our old lives—our passions, our virtues, our beauties, our loves—will still be at the heart of us. We will be who we are, but redeemed in the light of God’s grace.
It seems far-fetched. What works for butterflies we can’t imagine will work for our souls. Our flaws and fissures run too deep. We are too far gone. Our brokenness is irredeemable. Friends, butterflies are but insects. Beautiful, it’s true, but bugs, whereas we—every one of us—are created in the very image of God. If we want to see true beauty, we need look inward, where the seed of resurrection life has been planted in us since God knit us in our mothers’ wombs. It is there right now, ready to grow, to displace and dissolve those things that separate us from God and our neighbors, to burst forth in diverse and radiant color.
“When?” we ask. Why not today? It is Easter Day, the day of resurrection, not only in a biblical story but in our lives. The Lord is risen indeed. Why not us?
[i] http://www.radiolab.org/story/black-box/, first aired on January 17, 2014.