In his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Wendell Berry concludes with these imperatives: “Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection.” The final line is definitive and definitively hopeful—the comparative brevity gives it solidity; the rhyme grants the sentiment lift. This resurrection is metaphorical. It is the kind of return made after an unforgivable blunder. You’ve loved the wrong person or lived the wrong life. A friend abandoned you, a beloved betrayed you. You’ve been crucified or you’ve conducted crucifixions (which might, as we see with Judas, be its own kind of death sentence). Yet, at the end of it, after the end of it, someone new (but still very much you) comes back to life. The wounds—though they have happened, yet have they healed.
This figurative resurrection may feel just as, if not more, fantastical than a dead man sitting up, stretching the rot out of his bones, and sitting down to dinner with friends. Why do we struggle so to come back to our own lives? Maybe we are waiting to receive the resources for healing. Or, maybe, we are unwilling to identify hurt, resistant to the pronouncement of our own death or death-dealing. This kind of cruel optimism operates, not only on the individual or interpersonal level, but structurally, institutionally—an insidious belief that violent systems do not have to cease and be buried for new life to resurge.
Resurrection comes from the Latin meaning “to rise again” or “to appear again.” Notice, here, the sensory nature of the word. Our physical bodies must shift from one position to another, must prepare for new movement. Our resurrections are appearances. We are seen, perceived by others, as the same but different (“again”). Resurrection is communal; it involves witness, with-ness. And wounds themselves weave into scars as blood coagulates at the site of the abrasion. When the body begins to account for the fact of the injury, when our being involves the reality of harm, healing is.
Recall, though, that Berry does not instruct us to resurrect, but to practice resurrection. The metaphor is not the actual. If this is all practice, what, then, is performance? Here, he maintains the idea that resurrection, real resurrection, is not exactly up to us. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, as well as various other religions and philosophies have forwarded teachings regarding the resurrection of humanity. In each instance, humans are brought back by a supernatural force or entity. It is this condition that renders resurrection, at least for me (though I suspect for many of us), a wobbly hope in the face of death.
As a Christian, I may be able to ignore the rot of the body, the atomic scatter of death, the particulate dissipation of deceasing in the singular instance of Jesus. He, after all, brought himself back. The real question is whether my body, your body, the bodies of those we love—with their mannerisms, their hair, the scent of their clothes, that pattern of speech—will one day be brought back. What about the earth, the billions of extinct species? Yes, Jesus rises, but what about all my loves?
Lazarus, then. Perhaps a more compelling character than Jesus if we’re being honest. As the Gospel of John tells it, Mary, sister of Martha, leaves her house and the company of her comforters to confront Jesus before he even arrives in town. She falls at his feet, sobbing, and says what each of us has felt or might feel compelled to say to God in the face of the abrupt, untimely death of our loved one: if you were here, this would not have happened.
This is an accusation. Or an expectation. Which is, of course, one way of saying hope, or faith. It is the undercurrent that ran beneath this winter as two friends cried at the death of a beloved pet, another called sobbing on Christmas Eve after witnessing a fatal crash, another spent Christmas night mourning the death of a college friend, another quietly informed me of the passing of a childhood friend, and, two nights ago, yet another held a stranger who collapsed in the train station. If you were here, this would not have happened.
Why does Jesus weep? The comforters’ conclusion: See how he loved him!
Do we wrestle with the physical possibility of the resurrection or do we wrestle with understanding the nature of the love that creates, sustains, and propels all? Because it is love, really, that summons Lazarus to appear out of that tomb. It is love for Mary and Martha—for their sorrow which is our sorrow, our confrontation of violence and finitude and the isolating nature of loss (they were there when death happened). And it is also an unfathomable and, here, heartbreakingly misunderstood, love for Lazarus (and you, and me) out of which Jesus calls back his specific, inextricably-bound-to-the-body soul (Lazarus does not, after all, come back as a ghost).
The love that made creation possible makes resurrection inevitable. The love that made life have been is the same love that will make life be.
Lines from Czeslaw Milosz’ “Encounter”: “Today, neither of them is alive, / Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture. / O my love, where are they, where are they going / The flash of hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles. / I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.”
The fourteenth issue of Letters is a reflection on resurrection. As such, it is also a reflection on crucifixion—the many ways in which life intimates and undergoes death. This publication is preoccupied with the unknown—that mystery which is sorrowful and will be wonderful. It is an issue that despairs and awes over the way life goes and goes on. It is also brimming with love—love for the silly, reflexive babble of children, the hue and shade of flowers, the softening nature of animals, the warmth in our most intimate relationships, the sounds and shapes of the world’s being, the light.
May this issue help summon up in you the possibility of life, returned.
Alexandra Marie Green
Luke Stringer, editor
D. S. Martin
editorial by Alexandra Marie Green
Nicolette Polek, editor
editorial by Lily Jurskis
Issue 14 cover by GJ Gillespie.
Special thanks to Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music for making this publication possible.
Read more about Letters here.