You may have noticed the butterflies at the far left of the heading at the top of the page. Do you know what an “Easter Jesus” is? There is one pictured to the left.
In some countries this is the nickname of the Cleopatra butterfly which appears during the Easter season. In Psalm 22, Jesus, describing His Passion, says, “I am a worm,and no man” (Ps 22:6).
At first, these words seem to stem from the despair of a totally rejected and humiliated victim. But Pope Gelasius I taught that Christ called Himself a worm, not because He was abandoned and crucified, but because He would rise again in a glorified body like the caterpillar who emerges from his tomblike chrysalis in the form of a beautiful butterfly.
Long before the time of Christ, Egyptians saw a similarity between the cloth wrappings of their mummies and the butterfly’s chrysalis. For these early people and the Greeks, who placed golden butterflies in their tombs, this insect was a symbol of resurrection, new life, and immortality. In other traditions, the butterfly was a reminder of reincarnation.
To Christians, the three stages of the butterfly’s metamorphoses are symbolic of the three stages in the life cycle of Christ and the Christian. The caterpillar’s non-stop eating and excremating reminds us of normal earthly life where people are often preoccupied with taking care of their physical needs.
The chrysalis or cocoon resembles the tomb and the butterfly represents the resurrection into a new and glorious life free of material concerns and restrictions.
A major theme in St. Paul’s teachings is that “we shall all be changed” (1 Cor 15:51). The Christian hope is that what is sown in the grave as a weak mortal body will be raised an indestructible spiritual body not subject to temptation, sorrow, death, or pain (1 Cor 15:44-54). Through death the spirit will escape – not from its body but from the vulnerabilities and hardships of mortal flesh.
The victory of eternal life over death represented by the butterfly makes it a favorite image on old tombstones. In Ancient Greece the word Psyche meant “butterfly” and “soul.” It was also the name of a mythical beauty who was often portrayed with the wings of a butterfly. Her lover Cupid (a.k.a. Eros) was pictured with the wings of a dove.
According to this story, Cupid fell in love with the beautiful Psyche whom he was sent to destroy. He married her but, as a matter of trust, forbade her to look upon him. One night, fearing that her husband was secretly a monster, Psyche, equipped with a lantern in one hand and a knife in the other looked upon his slumbering form. To her surprise, she beheld a beautiful youth. A drop of hot oil fell from her lamp and landed upon Cupid awakening him. Enraged because Psyche had betrayed his trust, Cupid flew away declaring she should never feel his embrace again. Psyche searched desperately for her husband and underwent many heroic tests at the hands of Cupid’s jealous mother. In the meantime, Cupid, having a change of heart, searched for Psyche and the couple was reunited.
The early Church adopted the story of Psyche and Cupid as an allegory of the relationship between Christ (Cupid) and the Christian (Psyche). The dove-winged Christ flies away when His butterfly-winged lover shows mistrust, but, when she diligently seeks Him, He hastens to rescue her. No matter how it is reached, the butterfly is a symbol of change for the better.
Among various monastic traditions, its chrysalis represents, not the tomb, but the contemplative who isolates him or herself from the turmoil and distractions of everyday life in order to transform his soul. Sometimes improvement in the soul is attained without human effort as in the case of the prophet Isaiah. One day, while he was standing in the temple, God appeared to him. Filled with an awareness of his sins, Isaiah declared: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Is 6:5).
Fortunately, one of God’s seraphim touched Isaiah’s mouth with a coal from the altar and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged” (Is 6:6-7). This incident in the life of Isaiah may be symbolized by a butterfly (Isaiah) being held close to a flame.
All scripture quotes are from the NKJV Bible. © 1998 by Suzetta Tucker Tucker, Suzetta. “ChristStory Butterfly Page.” ChristStory Christian Bestiary. 1998.