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Caterpillars, Butterflies, and Resurrection

John 20:1-18

            Have you ever thought about butterflies and Easter? Do you know why they are associated? Until very recently, I assumed (like many others) that the caterpillar went into the chrysalis, something, something, grew wings, and became a butterfly. That’s not what happens.

            Recently, listening to the program Radiolab, I learned that in the 1600s- theologians and scientists had cut open pupae and discovered a white- yellow goo inside. The caterpillar is gone, but no butterfly was yet formed or seemed even evident in any shape, form, or fashion.

            They believed that the caterpillar died. In dying, it represented our bodies. The butterfly stood for our souls, light, free, and beautiful. Fortunately, they were wrong about the relationship of the caterpillar to the butterfly. I will assert that they were also incorrect about the body and soul’s separation, since the bodies are also beloved and prized by God.

            There is just pale goo in the chrysalis, even one day after the caterpillar forms it. The caterpillar seems gone and there isn’t yet a sign of what will be. So what happens? How does this longtime symbol of death to resurrection actually do its thing?

            As it turns out, the caterpillar is growing the thin, light skeleton of the future butterfly in its body for its entire life. The caterpillar carried and few the form of its future self. When it forms the chrysalis, the caterpillar dissolves, but the delicate butterfly parts- carried into the chrysalis- are pressed against its papery inside, with the goo- the proteins and amino acids of the caterpillar- forming the center. Butterflies will turn away from distasteful smells they experienced as a caterpillar. Some sense memories of their previous life exist within them.

            Thus, a caterpillar to a butterfly is not a story of death and decay. Instead, it is a story of resurrection as transformation, of new life, above the fullness of the possibilities that were always within. The caterpillar’s future self was inside it all along.

            When I think of Peter, Mary Magdalene, and the Beloved Disciple running back and forth to the tomb on that first Easter morning, I cannot help but think of them as being like caterpillars. Their insides probably felt like goo, as they panicked about the location of Christ’s body. Even in believing who Jesus was, God among them, among us, they did not understand what happened.

            Mary Magdalene, in her caterpillar state, also was overwhelmed. She did not recognize Jesus speaking to her, mistaking him for a gardener. But then he spoke her name, “Mary.” Christ called her by name and she knew who he was. She realized what had happened.

            Jesus urges her forward, with work to do. She is to speak to his brothers. She is to carry the news of the risen Savior. She is to proclaim a new familial relationship with God, by declaring him the Father of Christ and the Father of all. In these moments, Mary transforms. The shape of an evangelist (one who brings good news) has always been inside her, that’s why she was following Jesus.    

            The same thing happens for us. When we have a new life in Christ, what is old passes away. Our insecurities, our fears, our prejudices die. They enter the primordial ooze. The new life we have burst forth, with the help of the Holy Spirit. So many people expect to feel very different. Life in Christ, though, isn’t about feelings. The butterfly doesn’t feel different. It is different.

            Alive in grace, because of God’s work in Jesus on the first Easter and every day since, we are fundamentally changed, yet the possibilities of that new self, of that new life, of that transformation have always been inside us. The shape of our future self, the person that God is calling us and forming us to be, is always within us. We know what we know, we have been forgiven, we step forward… and there is transformation and resurrection… Easter, Easter, Easter… every step of the way.

            That is the hope of this Easter day. Not that we have blech little bodies that will die one day and then there will be something else somewhere. No! The Easter message, the one that calls us by name in the gardens of our griefs and frustrations, is that God resurrects, even here, even now, even you, even me. In Jesus’ own body was the Word that had always been and the Christ who will always be. Within us, by God’s own power, is the resurrection for today and the shape of who God will make us to be for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.



Teri said…
I love how you used the Radiolab story!!

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