Flannery O’Connor could not explain her fascination with peacocks. But she loved them. In fact, the southern writer of short stories lived on a farm where she raised near a hundred of them. She adopted her first peacock at the age of twenty-five, around the time she was diagnosed with a debilitating disease, and she could not stop looking at him. It was for her a mysterious sign of life, and an image that silenced her. In an essay focusing on her fascination, she describes the bird’s transfiguration from fledgling to finery: “[T]he peacock starts life with an inauspicious appearance….the color of those large objectionable moths that flutter about light bulbs on summer nights.” But after two years, when the bird has fully attained its pattern, “for the rest of his life this chicken will act as if he designed it himself… With his tail spread, he inspires a range of emotions, but I have yet to hear laughter. The usual reaction is silence, at least for a time.”(1)
It is not without coincidence that O’Connor used the peacock as a symbol for the transfigured Christ in many of her stories. Often cited is her use of the bird in The Displaced Person. In this story, the peacock is a main character of sorts, functioning for everyone else in the story as something of a spiritual test. Some never notice him; another sees the bird only as “another mouth to feed.” Still another liked to have peacocks around simply to signify his wealth; another is altogether besieged by the peacock’s splendor. With eyes locked on the regal bird poised in color and majesty, he says, overwhelmed, “Christ will come like that.”(2)
I appreciate stories that remind me to keep my eyes opened for all that can be seen but can just as easily be missed. Encounters with the sacred can be like this. Because ancient Greeks held the belief that the peacock’s flesh did not decay after death, the peacock became a symbol of Christ and resurrection in the early church. Many early Christian paintings and mosaics used the peacock imagery as a means of depicting the resurrected Christ or resurrection itself—namely, this new category of creation, the new way of seeing the world that the death and resurrection of Jesus necessitates. The many-splendored disruption that the resurrection ushered into the world is as crucial to take in as the historical evidences of the event. The promise of the fully human resurrected Christ to our own humanity is almost too much to take into our daily moments of running to and fro. And yet, here resurrection stands poised in all its incomprehensible finery, bidding us to consider what it might mean for this very moment, for this afternoon, for this community, for this relationship, for this death. Silence isn’t the worst reaction. Surprise, humility, gratitude are others.
To live fully alive in Christ and to die fully alive in Christ are also responses open to us. Yet whether we approach Easter head-on, looking glory full in the face, or live dismissively as if it is all just the stuff of other worlds, Christ is surely near even now. His resurrected humanity is poised and promising for this very moment in as much as it is for all eternity. “The intermediate hope—” writes N.T. Wright, “the things that happen in the present time to implement Easter and anticipate the final day—are always surprising because, left to ourselves, we lapse into a kind of collusion with entropy, acquiescing in the general belief that things may be getting worse but that there’s nothing much we can do about them. And we are wrong. Our task in the present… is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day.”(4)
For the resurrected Christ is here in color and majesty and flesh. Easter is in our midst. Thus, whether we make our bed in the depths, whether we seem to be moving backward, or whether we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Christ is both near and at work, the reality of the resurrection declaring its splendor, inviting us to marvel and believe and rest in the one who went before us in death and yet somehow stands among us.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works (New York, Library of America, 1988), 834-835.
(2) Ibid., 317.
(3) Connell Patrick Byrne, artist website: http://www.pbase.com/connellart/image/4272203. Used by permission.
(4) N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, (New York: Harper, 2008), 29-30.