Sunday, May 30, 2021

Considering the Easter Myth or How does Resurrection fit in Unitarian Universalism? by Reverend Tom Capo


         Martha and I grew up in Texas.  The five seasons in Texas, like Florida, are not so hot, hot, very hot, very hot and wet, hot and very wet, and then we start over again.  When we moved up to the Midwest about 13 plus years ago, we were enchanted by the seasons.  We arrived in August and it wasn’t all that hot compared to Houston, then fall came with all the leaves changing color; it was so beautiful.  Then winter, cold and snowy, unlike anything we had ever experienced.  These first few years we were ridiculously excited to experience all the things you do when it is winter, shoveling snow, wearing layers of clothing, buying scarves caps, because you really needed them.  You may laugh, but to us it was a real adventure. 

            And then came spring.  One of the things I noticed was that everyone who had been staying in their homes during the winter spilled out of their houses and came outside, as if stones had been rolled from in front of the tombs of their homes, letting them out.  I mean everyone was outside in the spring, as if there was some kind of celebration going on—in our small neighborhood in Iowa, people were out walking, biking, cleaning out their gardens, finally taking down their Christmas lights.  There is nothing comparable to this that happens in Texas.  I mean you stay inside in the air conditioning when it is too hot to go outside, but people don’t come out of their home in droves when fall comes and it is not so hot, and they certainly don’t suddenly appear in the streets when spring comes and it starts to get hotter.

            Spring really does feel like a time of celebration in the Midwest. Spring feels like a tangible expression of hope, and so maybe that's one of the reasons we have many holy days and holidays happening this time of year-- Passover when the Jews celebrate their escape from slavery in Egypt; Ostara when pagans celebrate the season’s change from dark winter to brightening spring with the occurrence of the spring equinox; and Holi, the festival of colors, when Hindus celebrate the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring, and the end of winter.  For many Hindus, Holi is a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships.  Many spring holidays are dedicated to mother goddesses in a number of religions: Astarte, Isis, Aphrodite, Cybele and the Virgin Mary. Many believe that the goddess shows herself in the blossoms, the leaves on the trees, the sprouting of the crops, the birth of young animals. In the agricultural cycle, spring is time for planting. Spring is also a time when many of us feel hope, reassurance at the visible evidence that life will continue. There is Earth Day, celebrating this planet that we live on.  And there is April Fool’s Day, a day for pranks and practical jokes.  Did you know there used to be a tradition in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian church when Easter Sunday falls on April 1st; it was called risus paschalis  [Ri  sus    Pas cal  us].  Priests would urge their congregations to laugh out loud on Easter and tell jokes inside the church?  I know April Fools was a few days ago, but in that tradition, I offer these:

Q: Why did the UU cross the road?

A: To support the chicken in its search for its own path.

Q: How does a UU walk on water?

A: She waits until winter.

A little Unitarian Universalist girl was sitting on the curb in front of her house with a sad look on her face. An older lady happened upon her and asked her why she looked so sad. The girl replied, “My kitty cat died.”

The older woman, trying to be helpful, said to the little girl, “I know you’re sad, but right now your kitty cat is with Jesus.”

The girl crinkled her nose for a second and replied, “What would Jesus want with a dead cat?”

            But generally, Unitarian Universalists don't seem to talk much about Easter.  Easter is a Christian holy day in the mythology that was taught to many of us, and if not taught to us, shared by those around us, because in this part of the world, Christianity is the dominant myth of the over-culture.   A myth is "a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events." (Oxford dictionary) 

            Before the mythopoetic story of Easter, the Christian Bible tells us of a very spiritual young man who taught people about how to live a more loving and just life with parables and metaphor.  A young man who most likely probably lived a couple of thousand years ago.  A young man named Jesus, from whose life and teachings grounded a religion that grew up about him.  And as this religion developed so did stories about him, some of which became myths.  There is a birth narrative—a myth-- about him with angels and shepherds and foreign kings, with a virgin birth and a star pointing down to manger.      

            The mythopoetic stories of this young man end with the myth of him getting crucified, dying, being put in a tomb, and on the sabbath day, some of his followers including Mary Magdalene found the stone had been rolled away from the tomb's entrance. Later Jesus's followers see him resurrected, a supernatural miracle.  This miracle drew many ancient people to Christianity.  Later, after Jesus's death, a doctrine was developed that his death would relieve his followers of their sins, particularly the original sin of Adam, you know Adam, from the Judeo-Christian origin story of the universe; he and Eve ate the apple god told them not to.  Thus Jesus’s death opened for his followers, now free of sin, the door to an afterlife with their god.

            In the blog Patheos Pagan, John Beckettt wrote: "I prefer the traditional Unitarian Christian view that it is better to follow Jesus—[his parables, teachings, and model his behavior]-- than to worship him. Still, two billion Christians aren’t categorically wrong, and there can be value in worshipping Jesus as a god and honoring him as a teacher. But let’s draw a sharp, bright line between worshiping Jesus as one god among many and accepting the exclusivist doctrines and theologies about Jesus made up by men long after he was gone from this world.”

            John goes on, “So what can we take from the Easter story? It is not a story of sacrifice. Sacrifice is an acknowledgement of the reality and necessity of hard truths…  Jesus’ death wasn’t a sacrifice – it was a brutal state-sanctioned murder. Jesus didn’t die for your sins or for anyone else’s sins – the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is a relic of a hierarchical, barbaric worldview that persists [even] in our time in honor killings… The message of Easter [for me] is that death is not the end and that the grave is merely a waystation on the route to the next world. That’s a message worth affirming in any religious tradition."

            I offer this blog post for a different perspective on Easter than the one we are commonly taught.  There are a couple of ideas in this blog that might make sense to or resonate with some Unitarian Universalists.  One is that Jesus's life and teachings are one way to live a spiritual life, a way that has value and worth and meaning.  And two that the death of Jesus is not important, except to understand that death part of the ongoing journey of existence.

            And speaking of Pagans, many scholars say that the term Easter actually comes from the pre-Christian goddess Eostre in England, who was celebrated at the beginning of the Spring.  The only reference to this goddess comes form the writings of Venerable Bede, a British monk who lived in the late 7th century. The word Easter and the celebration of Easter were co-oped by Christians to bring Pagans into their faith.  And the various earth-centered celebrations of Easter were brought to America by the Europeans.  For instance,  "In Germany and among the Pennsylvania Germans toy rabbits or hares made of canton flannel stuffed with cotton are given as gifts on Easter morning. The children are told that this Osh’ter has laid the Easter eggs. This curious idea is thus explained: The hare was originally a bird, and was changed into a quadruped by the goddess Ostara; in gratitude to Ostara or Eastre, the hare exercises its original bird function to lay eggs for the goddess on her festal day." (A response to a question about the origins of Easter hares in the 8 June 1889 issue of the journal American Notes and Queries) 

            The Christian myth emphasizes an after-life with god and that's a mythopoetical construct that doesn't resonate for many Unitarian Universalists, although it does for some.  For those of us who aren't just making time here on earth until we can get to heaven, is there any meaning we can glean from the Easter story?  It has its origins in the natural phenomena of the seasons and the earth's revolving around the sun, and in our modern lives we don't tend to experience that as miraculous—it's just science.  Is there any "both/and" here?  Can a phenomenon explained by science still be experienced as miraculous?  I have often made time to open my heart to miraculous in Spring.

            While I had fun as a child hunting painted eggs around my house, some of which we, both parents who hid and child who sought them, couldn't find until days after Easter when they began to smell up the house, these simple rituals seemed wholly disconnected from the teachings of the Catholic Church in which I grew up in.  The same kind of disconnect is also present in Unitarian Universalism.  In all my years as a UU, I have enjoyed watching my kids participate in Easter Eggs hunts at home and at our local Unitarian Universalist church.  But I have continued to wonder about the meaning of Easter, what meaning have I passed onto my children, about how Easter fits into the Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve served?  Is there anything beyond hunting for eggs and singing about flowers for a UU at Easter?  Is it just vestigial for us?  Just something left over from the religious observances of our childhood?

            I wonder what you think or believe about Easter?  In the coffee hour after the service, I would like to hear some of your thoughts and beliefs. I often see some letting go, some reconciliation and some incorporation around this Easter time as part of our free and responsible search for truth and meaning that each of us individually and all of us as a congregation do, as we decide, intentionally decide the meaning and purpose of Easter.   We do this process with many holy days, holidays, rituals, beliefs and traditions, letting go of some, reconciling with other or incorporating aspects or in whole some holy days, holidays, rituals, beliefs or traditions.  And we accept and support one another’s beliefs, rituals, traditions, and we encourage one another’s spiritual growth.  And collectively, as a congregation, we decide on which beliefs, rituals, traditions hold meaning for us, letting go, reconciling or incorporating some and embracing others; and we accept the tension in this, a tension that is inherent when a body of people, many of whom hold different truths in their individual hearts, choose to share their spiritual journeys together. 

            As I have wondered about holidays, holy days, beliefs, rituals, and traditions, I have come to believe a couple things.  One is that the behaviors and beliefs and rituals and traditions we hold onto reinforce our sense of connection with others, and when our connections with others are strong, we feel centered and safer in a chaotic and always changing world.  And I suppose this year especially, with so many of us having received our Covid vaccinations and once again able to physically spend time with our loved ones.  We again feel that sense of connection—of interconnection across the web of life—that we know is so necessary.  We're thirsty for it—thirsty for the hugs and the chance to spend time with each other.  After a year of quarantine it almost feels like a miracle.  It isn't, of course it's science, but doesn't it feel like a miracle?  Like a stone being removed from our tomb of isolation.

Unitarian Universalist Reverend Richard Gilbert wrote:

A tomb is no place to stay

When each morning announces our reprieve,

And we know we are granted yet another day of living.

A tomb is no place to stay

When life laughs a welcome

To hearts which have been away too long.

            To me this year I'm really feeling the resurrection part of the Easter story.  Not so much back from the dead.  But with the vaccine distribution in the back of my mind, I'm thinking more about the resurrection of our lives before Covid.   We stand in the front of an empty tomb this Easter.  Inside the tomb is this past year—a year of fear, uncertainty, too many deaths, too much loss, and perhaps—at least every once in a while, maybe—a loss of hope.  The vaccine has miraculously rolled the stone—offering us a way to leave that tomb.  Now it is incumbent upon us to resurrect ourselves as we step out of quarantine.  A tomb is no place to stay.

            How have you been changed while in your tomb this year?  What will you chose to resurrect?  In this season of new growth, of re-emergence and rejuvenated life, what will you choose to nurture into existence?  What new work has been begun in you this year that you will share with the world during this Easter season?

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