Easter Monarch

Two things you can be thankful for on this Easter morning.  First, you can be thankful that you are not a monarch butterfly.  And second, you can be thankful that you do not have to preach this morning.


On that second point, you can be especially thankful that it has not been on your mind for months, now, to interpret the Good News of the Resurrection through the plight of the monarch butterfly.  More specifically, you can be thankful that on January 25th of this year (when Christmas was still only a recent memory, and before Lent had even begun), you can be thankful that it did not come into your mind that the monarch butterfly had something to say to you about Easter.  Fortunately for you, you did not not jot down a message to yourself on a yellow Post-It and put it on your desk-top monitor.  The Post-It note was in reference to an article you may or may not have read all the way through to the end; an article the title of which was a question: “Are We Watching the End of the Monarch Butterfly?”

Butterflies - with their homely caterpillar beginnings, their shroud-like cocoons, their process of metamorphoses, and their glorious, multi-colored lives on-the-wing would seem to be obvious conveyors of good news, obvious collaborators of the Resurrection.  You would think so; wouldn’t you?

If you had been reading the New York Times on January 25 of this year, and an alarming story of the decline of the monarch butterfly population chanced across your field of vision, who knows if it would have put you in mind of Easter.  You would surely have taken the author at her word that “the total number of West Coast monarchs was estimated at approximately 4.5 million in the 1980s. [But] in the latest count, that number fell to 28,429.”  You would have noted with alarm that the particular location in northern California that the article mentioned, which had been visited the previous year by 12,360 migrating monarch butterflies, was this year visited by only 1,256 monarch butterflies.  You might have noticed the use of the words “migration” and “collapse” and thought about the parallel situation of bee colony collapse that has plagued honey bees across the globe.

You might have remembered that you have once before preached an Easter sermon about honey bees, and wondered if the whole insect-thing might be played out as a sermon illustration.  But never mind!  Who would not be woke by the startling news that these gorgeous monarch butterflies could be on their way to extinction?  And who wouldn’t look for hope among the orange, stained-glass-window-wings of these marvelous creatures of God’s handiwork?

Would it surprise you, then, months later, when you dutifully took account of the Post-It note you had been staring at for months… that when you delved a bit more deeply into the thought that had first crossed your mind on January 25, 2019… that among the very first pieces of information you would come across would be an article, posted by no less a reliable source than the World Wildlife Fund that reports that the population of monarch butterflies is “on the rise.”  And would it surprise you to see that the date of this article was - wait for it - January 30, 2019: five days after a headline in the New York Times had sounded the alarm that the end might be in sight for our winged friends?

Furthermore, the World Wildlife Fund could not be clearer in its reporting that “because we can’t count butterflies individually, we instead measure the area of forest they occupy during hibernation.”  But the numbers 28,429, 12,360, and 1,256, had sure sounded like carefully counted numbers to me!

It’s hard to discern how God is using the plight of the monarch butterfly to speak to you about the Resurrection of Jesus if you can’t even tell if things are getting better or worse for the butterflies.  And if we can’t tell what’s happening with monarch butterflies, how can we possibly make any sense of Jesus in a world that is pretty profoundly unsure about him, and a church that is often feeble in its attempts to convey why the world should care?

So let’s look at the primary source material.  St. Luke provides us with a shocking detail about what happened on that Easter morning.  The women who first discovered that Jesus was not in his tomb went and told his innermost circle.  And Luke tells us about the reaction of those closest associates and friends of Jesus, he tells us that when the women brought news that the tomb was empty, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

But Peter, dear Peter, one of the Lord’s closest friends, who had sworn to go with him, even unto death.  Peter, the rock on whom Jesus said he would build the church; the man who had walked for a few steps on the water, so strong was his faith, before it faltered.  Peter, bold and brash, who had vowed to go with Jesus even unto death.  Peter was incited by the women’s news.  He “got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves.”

And then, in first blush of the Resurrection, when the event that would change the course of the world was in its first moments, as the salvation of the world was beginning to unfold, in the warm light of the first sunrise of the first day of a new creation, as it became evident that God was performing a new thing, that death was being conquered and hell was being vanquished, as it began to become apparent that the claims Jesus had made that on the third day he would rise from the dead were quite possibly true, and as Peter became one of only a small handful of people ever to see the evidence with his own eyes.  St. Luke tells us what Peter did.  He tells us… “then he went home.”  Wow!

Having registered the fact that the Body of Christ was not there, that the stone had been rolled away, and the tomb was empty, and the Lord was risen indeed….

… Peter went home.  Which is to say that Peter did exactly what you and I are planning to do today.  Once the news of the Resurrection was out, with all its glorious implications for Peter and all humanity… then he went home.

Maybe he had a nap.  Wow!

On the twentieth of February - twenty-one days after the World Wildlife Fund contradicted the New York Times on the question of the health and well-being of monarch butterflies - the New Yorker magazine climbed on the bandwagon.  Oh, the New Yorker….  Of course, the New Yorker put things in perspective, explaining that while the overall trend in monarch butterfly population has been plummeting for decades, there have been some very recent good signs.  And they reported that it’s possible that last year’s precipitous plunge may not be as disastrous as it seems.  The New Yorker article asked what is actually a useful question: “why anyone should care” about the details of the monarch butterfly population, since, in the words of the expert  quoted in the article, “monarchs probably don’t have big-picture ecosystem importance.”

The answer they came up with was fairly simple: “just the fact that they connect people to nature is reason enough to make us care….  When people stop caring, things are going to get worse a lot faster.”

Every year, like butterflies, we make our own spiritual migration to the empty tomb.  We follow the women who first went there.  And we follow St. Peter.  It sometimes feels to me as though those of us who make this journey share a plight with the monarch butterflies - there are fewer and fewer of us.  But we know about this faith that we have placed in the risen Christ, and about the church which has tried (sometimes feebly) to live a life worthy of him.   What we know is that when we stop caring about Jesus things get worse a lot faster.  But, in a world in which truth is hard to come by, perhaps we know more than that.  

Here we are in first blush of the Resurrection: the event that would change the course of the world, the salvation of the world is beginning to unfold, we have enjoyed the warm light of the first sunrise of the first day of a new creation.   God is performing a new thing.  Death is being conquered!  Hell is being vanquished!  

And yet, we know exactly what’s going to happen at the end of this Mass: we’re all going to go home.  

I’m going to have a nap.

But while I’m napping, I might dream that I’m a homely caterpillar.  I might see myself in my shroud-like cocoon.  I might witness in my dream the gradual process of metamorphoses that I must go through to become the butterfly I was made to be.

And I might see myself, in my Easter dream, unfurl my gorgeous, glorious, orange-hued, stained-glass-window-wings, that can carry me further than I have any right to be able to travel with so little engineering.  I might begin to believe, in my dream, during my nap, on Easter Day, that, like a monarch butterfly, I, too, could live a life-on-the-wing, and become an  obvious collaborator of the Resurrection.  I believe that’s why God has called us on this yearly migration.

And I believe that the news of our demise is greatly exaggerated; which was exactly what the women ran to tell the men about Jesus, when they’d seen the stone rolled away - that the news of his demise was greatly exaggerated.  It’s why Peter ran to the empty tomb.  And it’s why it’s perfectly alright to go home after Mass on Easter Day, and even to nap.  As long as we dream of a resurrection, of a life-on-the-wing.  And when we wake up, we should be ready to fly!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Easter Day 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 21, 2019 .