This spring, before it was so rudely interrupted by two record breaking snow storms, I was noticing how slowly and methodically spring blooms. The bark on the new growth of willows turns from a faded yellow or red to vibrant color over a period of weeks The gray hillsides take on a barely noticeable greenish hue. When the wind blows, the branches move just a bit differently and the sound of the wind is a little bit less harsh, no doubt because weight and girth are being added to the tips of the branches as the trees get ready to push their new leaves out into the unforgiving world.
All the while, things still have the appearance of late winter barrenness. If one hast been paying attention to the uninteresting grayness of winter, if one hasn’t been listening, not just to the wind, but to how the wind blows, if one hasn’t been seeing those specific colors of grayish red, grayish yellow, and grayish brown, one will be unable to notice these first signs of spring.
Spring doesn’t burst upon us in a moment of glory, the season emerges with painful slowness, in fits and starts. That final burst is every bit as much an ending as a beginning. The burst is not a surprise, although the moment is always rather unexpected, and because of its unexpectedness, all the more joyful.
In my reading I came upon Mat 16, and I thought, isn’t that rather the point that Jesus made so long ago? “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy weather, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (vv 2f).
He concludes in v. 4. “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign ..” Folded into this simple statement is the assumption that the sign is already there. The “evil and adulterous generation” asks for a sign because they are not paying attention.
And folded into the ridiculously long preparations and celebrations (by modern standards of time) for times and seasons, fasts and feasts, that Eastern Orthodoxy still maintains against the tide of hurriedness that marks the modern world, is this same sensibility.
Pascha’s not so much a glorious moment where everything changes in an instant, it’s more that final burst of something that’s been going on for a long time. Paul, in Galatians, offers that wonderful turn phrase, “in the fullness of time …” Salvation is not rooted in the resurrection nor in Christ’s death; that’s just the final burst. “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son.” But neither is salvation rooted in the life of Christ, for that is simply the final burst of process that had been going on for generations. Salvation has been in process for a long, long time.
Forty days of Advent (yeah, the Orthodox observe the whole forty days, not just the truncated 4 weeks) and the twelve days of Christmas, the forty days of Lent (which, by the way, ends on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, since the Orthodox don’t skip Sundays), and then the six day fast of Holy Week, the fifty days of Pascha, etc. etc. Very few things are punctiliar in historic Christianity. Even Sunday morning Divine Liturgy takes a long time to unfold and reveal, since it essentially starts with vespers the evening before.
We Americans are people of Easter Bunny and the day the cherry blossoms burst on the National Mall. Christianity, on the other hand, seeks to cultivate people of the willow branches slowly shedding their gray sleepiness for vibrant yellow, of a Pascha celebration that starts with Abraham, and a weekend liturgy that begins with creation on Saturday night and concludes with the Apocalypse about lunchtime on Sunday.
Apocalypse literally means “a tearing open.” Only a sinful and adulterous generation would ask for a hint as to when that final burst is going to occur. People of the Christ have been watching that seam grow … and stretch … and slowly change from the gray of death to the yellow, red, and green of vibrant life for a very long time. That final “pop!” of the Consummation of All Things will be a surprise, but not unexpected.