Sarah Ruden on Easter, the World’s End, and Hope
The shock of mourning in the face of the world going on as usual is a commonplace in literature, and we verify that shock whenever we have a great loss. It is weird that flowers can still come out of the ground when a beloved friend goes into it. How can those builders be busy, how can those children be playing, when the world’s efforts and joys always come to this?
But there is a different sort of shock that many of us—no matter how comfortable and safe as individuals—are feeling now. I call it the shock of history. It brings the delusion that, instead of one precious being perishing, everything is dead already, or as good as: it is all without hope, without meaning, without a future.
As a twenty-first-century Quaker, I seem to be right in the path of this despair as it roams the world. Since its beginnings in the sixteenth century, the sect has included plenty of manic activists, and it used to be large enough for major interventions, such as post-WWII food relief in the losing countries. Now we seem mostly to make donations, drops in the professionals’ buckets. We are like a lot of other people, I suspect: baffled as to how we can do anything against environmental collapse, authoritarianism on the march, dizzying inequality, and wanton violence.
A scary attitude creeps into me as I go about the spring inspection and clean-up in my wildlife garden. I’m a childish and impulsive gardener in the first place, using the yard as relief from my work as a translator of ancient languages, where every accent, every nuance of imagery counts. I plant bright-colored things I don’t know the names of, and see what they do. I say to a segment of ground, “Hey, what’d ya get me this time?” Purple flowers and butterflies? I love you! Weeds and voles? You suck! I feed birds with a policy like a six-year-old’s about stray dog adoption: you can’t have too many, or too many kinds; there are no such things as undesirables.
But this year the April uncertainty is really getting to me. I know—from the modest experience I now have—that the trees and shrubs and other perennials will awaken (if at all) in their own time, and in fact they’ve just had a favorable winter (compared to our dismal one—I just had a brain-fevered vision of various plants in tiny masks). All the lavender made it, the peach tree is about to look like cotton candy, the daffodils are set to spring. The rose bushes are leafing out—but not fast enough for me. If a whole large branch is still barren-looking, though not easily breakable and thus dead for sure, I’m overwhelmed with an urge to assume death and fetch the shiny new loppers; a partial hard prune will, anyway, thin out the greenery and keep birds from nesting here, and the chipmunks won’t have a chance to raid the eggs: this year, I couldn’t stand for that to happen. I want to attack my own hope through preemptive violence, because I believe the world is worn out. Clearly, keeping the news on all day is having its effect.
Mark 4:26–29 is one of the simplest, shortest parables. The sower scatters seeds over his field, he waits while the seeds germinate and the stalks of grain grow and develop, but “he doesn’t know how” they do it: the natural stages simply happen “on their own.” At last he can take his sickle to the ripe field, because it is harvest time. But this immemorial, ordinary series of events is compared to the “kingdom of heaven” (literally “of the skies”). It is “like” the culmination of history in justice and salvation. How? We don’t know. The connection is as mysterious to us as the growth of grain is to the sower before the age of scientific agriculture. And we don’t even understand our own life as we wait. The sower “sleeps and wakes night after night and day after day.” He himself is caught up in natural processes: some are cyclical, but some are progressive. He is a different person by the time of the harvest; he is ready to meet history as it comes to its inevitable purpose.
On its surface, the parable is a childishly obvious statement of facts, but underneath, it is about something profound. When terrible things have happened—as they had been happening to Israel for almost a thousand years—it is a challenge to believe that the world works at all. Renewal is a extremely hard sell, and it seems as if only something as dramatic as the resurrection of a human body might be a persuasive enough miracle. The Parable of the Sower is, in contrast a gentle, lullaby-like offer of comfort. What needs to happen out in the world, far beyond the bed in which you lie helpless, is already happening, and will continue to happen after you are grown up, and after you are gone. Resurrection is life, or is built into it. (This is the more accurate translation of John 11:25: not “I am the resurrection and the life,” but simply, “I am the rising, and life.”)
There are other versions of the parable, with their anxious listing of all the perils to sown seed (birds, rocky ground, weeds, trampling pedestrians): but here in Mark we can just picture the seeds’ miraculous will to live and friendly disposition to live for the common good.
The whole globalized world—our inheritance from the Roman Empire—is coming to a crisis similar to Judea’s. We just don’t seem to know how we can keep this up; we fear the world’s end, which is paralyzing, or even an incitement. This Parable of the Sower tells me to put the loppers away, to wait and see what is really dead, and to plant—and dig deeper for Ukraine humanitarian relief—while there is still time. The hope of the resurrection isn’t—for me, anyway—about certainty; it’s about not knowing anything, and living with pity and terror and trusting in the world’s will to live.
Sarah Ruden, Ph.D., is a scholar and translator of the Classics and sacred literature. Her latest book is a new translation of The Gospels (Modern Library, 2021).