There’s a beech tree in my neighbor’s yard that holds onto most of its dead leaves all winter long. I walked over to it a couple of months ago out of curiosity and tugged on a few of the dead leaves to see if they were at least loose and ready for the next strong wind to blow them off. They weren’t.
It’s possible I simply noticed the persistence of dead leaves this year more than in previous years, but around Atlanta, it seemed like there were more dead leaves remaining on the deciduous trees than usual. Caught up in the flow of my busy schedule, though, it remained a passing observation. I didn’t dwell on it.
During my daughter’s spring break last week, our family took a trip to see relatives in central New Jersey. One morning, while my daughter and I were following deer tracks, we came across a huge beech tree. It had tons of dead leaves on it. Curiosity reawakened and temporarily freed from my usual routine, I got up close to study the tree. I noticed that at the point of attachment of every dead leaf, there was a budding leaf getting ready to unfurl. And at the base of the tree, there was a bed of freshly fallen dead leaves.
When we got back to the house, I searched “why do beech trees hold onto their dead leaves in the winter?” I found out there’s a fancy name for this phenomenon: marcescence. I also found out that theories abound for why it happens, but no one knows for sure why it does because well, the trees aren’t telling us. Or maybe they are, and we just don’t understand their language.
As I was reading through the various theories on marcescence, it reminded me of all the theories and theologies we humans create to explain why we suffer. At the end of the day, no matter how many people with Th.Ds., PhDs, or M.Divs. we consult with, we simply don’t know. But I’ve discovered that creation is one of God’s finest classrooms. The things we learn there are designed to expand not only our minds but also our hearts and, as a result, our communion with him.
To a scientist, marcescence is something to study and understand. To a child of God, it is a metaphor pregnant with meaning. I often feel the weight of dead things clinging to the various limbs of my life. They may not be an eyesore like marcescent leaves, but they constantly remind me of unsatisfactory outcomes of a previous season. The winds of fall failed to accomplish their intended effect, spring is nowhere in sight, and I’m filled with a gnawing lack of closure. It’s not the barrenness of winter – more like fall in suspended animation.
God spoke some comforting truths to my heart through the beech tree that day. When I saw that the leaf buds were growing out at the exact point of attachment of last season’s dead leaves, I realized several things. The presence of deadness doesn’t impede the progression of life. And when life does break forth, deadness can no longer remain. It totally and finally falls away. For marcescent trees, spring is the true end of fall, when all the dead things finally give way to newness of life.
Easter – Resurrection Sunday – reminds us that although we live with pain, injustice, relational brokenness, loneliness, sickness, death, uncertainty, loss, war, and danger, the ultimate Spring is coming. These dead things will totally and finally fall away, and God’s new creation will be fully manifest. Jesus died to make it so, and the Father raised him to guarantee it.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” – 1 Corinthians 15:21-27
He is risen!