“Jesus did not say He was the resuscitation and the life. He said resurrection.”
The tree came with the house. It’s an American linden and it stands in the middle of our backyard, about two-thirds of the way between the deck and the back of the lot. Thirty-one years ago, I could have wrapped one arm around its trunk. Now I can stretch both arms around the main trunk and still be a yard short of its circumference.
For more than three decades, we’ve watched it grow. We have measured its maturing by the growing girth of its trunk, by the lengthening of its limbs and by the creeping cast of its shadow toward the back of our house. In summer, its long, gangly branches and broad, oval-shaped leaves offer a Shangri-la of dappled shade. A number of years ago I dug a hole about eight feet out from its base and cemented a 6 x 6 post in the ground. I fastened one end of a hammock to the post and the other end to the tree. I’ve read myself to sleep many times in the shelter of this linden tree.
Every year, without fail, we have witnessed its dressing and undressing. Each fall the leaves turn from green to gold to brown and start to drop. Usually before the first snow comes, the last of its foliage has been shrugged off like a worn out wardrobe. The nest that the squirrels have been constructing since August can be seen in the upper reaches of its branches. Then it shivers its way through winter’s icy wind and weather until spring, when once again, pale yellow buds appear and grow their way into a bounty of fresh green leaves. This annual drama of dying and rebirth has never become mundane for me.
I’ve read that the life span of an American linden tree is between 100 to 150 years. That means, barring any stray lightning bolts or deadly bug infection, it will outlive me. But it is showing its age. The winters seem to be taking their toll. Each spring the melting snow reveals a larger mess of fallen branches beneath its canopy. Grey green moss grows in the deepening crevices of its bark. Each summer its limbs droop a little lower to the ground. There’s no kind way to put it—it’s looking tired and frail.
Last year, Easter Sunday coincided with the fourth anniversary of my mom’s death. I remember rising early, before sunrise, to sit in the sunroom with a coffee and my thoughts. Out the window I watched the linden tree keeping silent, barren vigil in the yard. If one can keep company with a tree, that’s what it felt like I was doing. I could feel the sun breathing warmth into its bark as morning poked its head above the horizon. From 30 years of watching it happen, I knew that spring was seeping unseen into its roots, stirring the sleeping sap and awakening, I imagined, a deep yearning to be clothed once again in its summer glory.
And then I thought of Mom in the final winter of her life. I saw her in her last days in our home, sitting in her recliner looking out the bay window of her apartment at this very same tree. She’d be wrapped up in her plaid blanket, her Bible open on her lap, the heating pad behind her back. Eighty-seven winters had taken their toll. Her once fleshy frame had been diminished to bony edges and angles. Hugging her felt like hugging an old fashioned clothes drying rack. Once a strong and sturdy woman, she felt tired and she looked frail.
But to borrow the words and imagery of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:16, though outwardly Mom was wasting away, yet inwardly she was being renewed day by day. She never lost heart. Her faith and her hope never grew weak. What she had believed in all her life long, she longed for all the day long—to feel the Son breathe warmth into her skin and to be fully clothed in her future glory. She believed in Christ’s bodily resurrection. She longed for hers. She did not hope for a mere rejuvenation of her worn-out mortal home. She had her sights set on something better—a new, eternal, imperishable, immortal body.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” declared Jesus to Martha before calling her brother Lazarus from his tomb (John 11:25). We tend to focus on the miracle of Jesus calling Lazarus back from the dead. But in Jesus’ own words, it was like waking someone who had fallen asleep (John 11:11). Jesus did not say He was the resuscitation and the life. He said resurrection. Lazarus came out of the tomb with a new lease on life, but with the same old body. A body destined, eventually, to wear out and die. Resurrection awaited Lazarus, as it awaited Mom.
Frederick Buechner, writes, “We try to reduce [the Resurrection] to poetry… the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth, the rebirth of hope in a despairing soul. We try to suggest that these are the miracles that the Resurrection is all about, but they are not. In their way they are all miracles, but they are not this miracle, this central one to which the whole of Christian faith points.”1
Resurrection is the message of Easter. “Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die,” Jesus explained to Martha. And then He asked her a simple question: “Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied. And so did my mom. And so do I. Do you?
1. Frederick Bueckner, Listening to Your Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 101.