The Great Vigil of Easter: Down into the Ground, Up from the Water

The Easter services feel deeply human because they ask us to walk in darkness

Note: today we are in the midst of the Easter Triduum, “the three days of Easter,” stretching from the evening of Maundy Thursday through Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and to the evening of Easter. To encompass all these holy days in a single essay is impossible. So lest I test my readers’ patience with too many emails, for this year, let this entry, mainly reflecting upon the Easter Vigil service, stand for all. If you have not attended an Easter Vigil before, let me commend to you this gorgeous essay by Beth Maynard before you proceed.

And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord. Ezekiel 37:13-14

In the darkness, fire is kindled. My father, in a black bathrobe and with sleep still smearing his cheeks and the corners of his mouth, is rebuilding the day’s fire. Tenderly he stokes the night’s banked coals with corn cobs and kindling, then fills the stove with wood. Slowly the flames wake, passing over from death into life. Heat begins to push its way into the room, dulling the cutting edge of the cold.

It is spring, technically, but it is cold. Once we have had breakfast, we will plant peas, lettuce, kale. I will help my parents in the garden as I am expected to do, the cold earth, studded with crystals of ice, staining my fingers a mottled red and black.

The garden year begins in darkness. A seed goes down into the earth; remains there a while; then, Lord willing, rises in glory.

My life in the garden, too, began in darkness: I planted, cultivated, and harvested in obedience to my parents, but with an ill grace. It yet remained for the seed my parents planted to rise, the spark to kindle into flame. Now, I find fruit both literal and spiritual in my garden and in garden memories such as I have recounted here.

Lately, rather than seeds, I have been starting plants from dormant cuttings. I have had my first successes in this process just this spring. Seven new elderberry bushes and two currents are setting down their roots in my soil, and I spent nothing to get them but a little time, stopping along the sides of roads and around my parents’ property to snip a branch.

Taking dormant cuttings is simple. During the dormant season, cut a foot of healthy wood off the shrub you’d like to replicate, the diameter of a pencil or larger. Make sure it has buds at the bottom and the top of the cutting. Soak the cuttings for twenty-four hours, then stick them in some loose soil, after dipping in some rooting hormone if you have it. Keep the cutting well-watered. In the spring, it will grow roots and branches. Enjoy your free shrub.

As a person of limited means but vast horticultural ambitions, I needed to learn to take cuttings. Last year, I brought home a trayful of blueberry and currant cuttings from a visit to my parents’ and conducted a mass slaughter upon them by leaving them in a hot, sunny location and failing to water them. Results of my new attempt, technically, are still pending—the plants could still die half-grown—but as the elderberries are showing healthy growth after a couple of weeks in the elements, I’m optimistic. Nothing so satisfies my frugal Midwestern soul as getting something for nothing, and since taking cuttings is also a satisfying challenge and particularly good for propagating some of my favorite fruits, this process gives me a thrill.

Though great horticultural writing is easy to find (try Eleanor Perényi’s Green Thoughts, if you haven’t), works on the sublimity of taking dormant cuttings aren’t so abundant. We do have, however, two wonderful poems by Theodore Roethke on the theme. The second, “Cuttings (Later)” figures the process of growing roots on a dormant cutting as a “resurrection of dry sticks,” and a marker of new beginnings:

When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

I love the poem, though I balk a bit at Roethke’s theological imagination. Cuttings aren’t especially resurrection-like because the stick is never all that dead (and if you let it go dry, the rising you hope for will never occur)—it’s a living clone of the mother plant, and thus St. Paul’s metaphor in Romans of Christians as vines grafted to Christ is actually more horticulturally appropriate. Nor does it descend into the ground in burial.

This is a quibble, of course, because there are no natural metaphors that can adequately reflect the supernatural reality of what occurred on this most holy night. I tend to find the seed buried in the ground a better resurrection image, but of course it isn’t truly dead either. I do appreciate the wetness of Roethke’s image, however—that sense of one emerging from a birth canal or a baptism. There we find the canonical image of resurrection, and the best.

The Easter Vigil begins in darkness and proceeds through the damp, that we might wake up to the light and warmth of Christ. All good things, from the production of excess berry bushes to the salvation of the world, present themselves to us through these basic elements: darkness and light, water and fire. The Easter services feel deeply human because they ask us to walk in darkness, to light fires, to enter the water. We can feel ourselves to be the cuttings that we are, going down into the ground, rising up from the water.