Jane and I had just begun to climb the path to the summit of Corona Heights in San Francisco. Corona Heights is a low hill topped by prominent rocks above Market Street which presents the viewer with a grand display of the Mission district, the Bay and, to the left, the skyline of San Francisco, which on this day in the strange light of a sunless sky looked like a vast Cubist painting, what with its rectangular buildings of every size and shade and its Transamerica pyramid. Jane and I go there on every anniversary of our son Philip’s death because it overlooks where he lived and died on Duboce Street and because the last time we saw him we were driving up Market Street and he pointed to the Heights and said that was his favorite place of retreat and if he ever had to live on the streets that’s where he’d stay.
Well, back to our ascent of the Heights last Sunday. To make the climb easier the park people had cut some steps into the soil at the path’s lower reaches and reinforced them with wooden four by fours to prevent erosion. We had only climbed a couple of steps when Jane said, “Look, a butterfly.” She was pointing directly to the step in front of us. I couldn’t see anything but she insisted there was a stationary butterfly, which had just closed its wings. Of course that’s why I couldn’t see it – because with its wings closed the butterfly was so camouflaged we could hardly distinguish it from the soil, pebbles and sticks at our feet. As Jane pointed, I looked hard and said, “Where?” And she said, “Wait.” And then the butterfly’s wings opened and I beheld the sudden splendor of a new monarch butterfly in all its orange, black, red and white spotted symmetry! It was like an apparition out of nowhere.
It then took flight but only to alight upon the next step where it again folded its wings and disappeared, became what looked like a sliver of wood. We waited and watched and again it opened its wings and transfigured the ground and repeated this ritual for several steps upward until I got the message and said to Jane, “The butterfly is telling us that Phil is here. We can’t see him but he’s here and if he were to open his wings we’d see him in all his splendor.” And so we continued our ascent sensing that Phil was with us all the way – camouflaged by death but still present with a transcendent beauty.
Is that not what happened to the apostles after the death of Jesus? I mean even when Jesus was alive they failed to perceive who he really was. They imposed on him the camouflage of their own presuppositions. Or take the experience of those two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the death of Jesus. Here they were walking beside him, engaging in conversation with him, but did they see him? No – not until he sat with them at table and broke bread and gave it to them. That’s when he opened his wings and displayed for a moment the monarch he really was! And so it was with all his apparitions to his disciples. Were they not moments when, by opening to them the deeper meaning of the Scripture, he opened to them the essence of who he really was – the Grace of God Incarnate? And in opening his own wings throughout all those resurrection episodes, did he not compel his apostles to lay aside their own camouflage, to open up their own wings, to reveal their own capacity for gracious being? And do not all these Gospel episodes we listen to throughout this Easter season demand that we too lay aside the camouflage by which we conceal (even from ourselves) our own redeemed beauty? I must say, last Sunday’s experience with that monarch butterfly helped me feel (in relation to Philip) something of the joy Mary Magdalene experienced when, assuming the risen Jesus to be only a gardener, she heard him simply say “Mary” – saw him simply open his wings - and realized he wasn’t dead after all.