In last week’s visual meditation on the role of death in the Christian life, the classic emblem of mortality—the skull—was rendered on scarred wood to reflect the way self-sacrifice is Christ’s call on every one of us who call upon Him, while reminding us of His assurance that we each bear the imprint of our Creator. But a more pervasive New Testament image for the way death is tied up with life in both the natural and spiritual worlds is that of the grain of wheat, or the seed. This week, continuing our Lenten consideration of the roles of sacrifice and self-denial in the Christian life, poet Sørina Higgins helps us consider the fullness of death.
Jesus’ basic reference to the seed as something that encapsulates the cycles of death and renewal in the natural world would have been immediately familiar to his first-century hearers and, indeed, to any who have a first-hand knowledge of agriculture. But as He preached on the Kingdom of God, Jesus had something more than the idea of simple, repetitive rebirth, or even new life from what seemed dead. His promise was not and is not that death doesn’t matter because it’s only a temporary state, but that it does matter because through it something new and much greater comes to be. There is a trajectory, a forward and outward movement in Jesus’ definitive account.
With Jesus, becoming like a buried seed is more about smallness and seeming insignificance than it is about bodily suffering, though the two are inescapably related: the seed must fall to the ground and be buried in order to live again. But what is paradoxically significant about seeds that die to the world is not the promise of their individual re-birth, but that in their re-birth they bring forth much more than they seemed to hold. The seed is about potential, realized through the Spirit and for the Glory of God.
Similarly, our spiritual re-birth in the present age can not be about our new individual lives as ends in and of themselves, but must be about the way that our humility and sacrifice produces abundant life in others. The fruit, the produce of our conversion from death to new life does not end with our individual salvation and conversion but begins there, leading to an abundance of other, different lives birthed, enriched, nourished by our own. As Jesus often described it, the on-rushing Kingdom of God does not grow seed by seed, but seed by sheave by field.
This natural symbolism of death and renewal, then, can be recognized by tracing the lineage of life from its earliest stages on earth in tandem with pondering the biblical descriptions of seeds and grains: in both, re-birth and preservation of the individual find greater meaning within an overall dynamic of profligate expansion of the kingdom, be it biological or spiritual. From the smallest of beginnings the earth is being filled with the Glory of God, and each new generation is not just a clone of the previous one, but a new work in itself, expanding upon the gift of the generations before, adding to the expression of God’s majesty through creation.
When we consider the centrality of self-denial and self-effacement in the Christian life, let us recall that God’s grace is abundant, and leads to abundance precisely through death. Let us be willing to be small for the Kingdom, one of a million rather than one in a million, a “round naught” as Higgins crafts the phrase. Let us to lie fallow until called forth by His word, and be buried with Christ before being raised with Him to the glories that yet will be.
“With What Kind of Body”
by Sørina Higgins
The seed is tilled in, tended, and dead.
Brown shelled, tiny, a round naught, smooth spot
on the palm and then gone, ah well.
A million fellows fall through fingers
and die on rough dirt where they hide. Until spring.
And the thing there is born to some warm morn
we could sing to, so peach-yellow, sea-pink,
and thin rich green seems it, too thick in the field
to be trundled in arms full, bundled in waves
where the wind dares to tumble. Trebled
in texture, thrice trebled in sight and in sweetness
to sense: see what a seed comes to,
see what death to life has done now!
What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be,
but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.
—I Corinthians 15:36b-37
In imitation of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Sørina Higgins is an adjunct faculty member in English at Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published one poetry chapbook, The Significance of Swans (Finishing Line Press) and has a full-length collection entitled Caduceus due out from WordTech Communications/David Roberts Books in February 2012. Her poetry and other writing has appeared in several journals, including Comment, Radix, Stillpoint, Relief, Studio, and Windhover. She is the Book Review Editor of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal, a staff writer for Curator, and blogs about the arts and faith at http://iambicadmonit.blogspot.com. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina and her husband live in Kutztown, PA, in a home they built themselves.