I attended an Open House at the Kendall Mosque last week and broke the Ramadan fast after evening prayer with the members of that faith community. As I watched the prayers, I thought of how we, Unitarian Universalists, draw wisdom and spirituality from sources as diverse as science, poetry, scripture, and personal experience. And the world’s religious and spiritual traditions offer much to us as we search for truth and meaning. The stories/myths they offer, are rich for those seeking meaning and purpose from their own life experiences and for those seeking discernment about how to live an ethical and/or spiritual life. In some ways Unitarian Universalists are fortunate to draw from so many diverse traditions, but I believe we can get lost in so many traditions, so many philosophies and experiences. It is easy to accept the superficial and cultural meanings given to us about the stories/myths, histories/philosophies, science/poetry, rather than delve more deeply into one or two. I tend to believe it is better to go deeper into a few stories/myths than stay in the shallow end of the philosophical or spiritual of the pool with the many. I also think there is value in revisiting a few stories/myths each year in order to notice how we have changed, how our meanings, beliefs, values have changed after a year of living through whatever has been thrown at us.
As we explore Easter for instance, we might examine at how early Christians responded to, studied, and incorporated this story into their lives to discern how to live their values in the world. Or we might look at how the teachings of Easter changed in the 9th century focusing on Jesus hanging on the cross and the symbolism of his death. We might focus on how many of the practices and images we associate with Easter, eggs and bunnies and spring, come from Pagan traditions--Some historians believe Easter eggs came from Anglo-Saxon festivals in the spring to celebrate pagan goddess Eostre. The goddess, who may or may not be the namesake of Easter, represented the dawn in spring, and eggs were buried—sort of like our Easter eggs hunts where we hide and seek colored eggs--and then the eggs were eaten during the festival.
I want to share another quote from Rev. Myke Johnson: “Decolonization is about learning the stories of our history, and rejecting the beliefs and practices that involve domination, conquest, and subjugation. But decolonization also includes uncovering the liberating threads we might find in the midst of the forces of domination. The stories of the early Christians around a communal shared meal are stories that give me hope.”
So how do we decolonize the many religious and spiritual traditions, including our own, to uncover the liberating threads we might find amidst the forces of domination. Well, lets start with Easter, because after all today is Easter. I ask you for a moment to consider what stories, feelings, beliefs that you hold about Easter. (pause) Where do these come from? Why do you hold onto them? What images and traditions do you affirm or practice in your life about this Christian holy day? (pause) Why do you affirm or practice them? Cultural pressure? Joyful play? Positive memories from your past? I hope you share some of your thoughts with each other at lunch after the service.
I think the place to start on any journey is within one’s self. Let me start with Easter Egg Hunts. These were a joyful experience in my household. It was never clearly explained why we had Easter Egg Hunts or how they related to our Catholic beliefs, but hunting eggs, eating chocolate eggs and bunnies were ingrained into our lives. My mother still colors Easter Eggs and finds someone to hunt them. She is having difficulty finding anyone to hunt them now that we are all adults and our kids are all adults—no grandkids yet. She told me that she was going to get my 26-year-old nephew’s new girlfriend to hunt them this year because she is new to the family.
Today as I reflect on this egg-centric tradition, I think about some of the research about its origins, from the Pagan tradition and I smile. I no longer have to twist my mind around trying to make sense of egg hunting and eating chocolate bunnies from a Catholic point of view. I can embrace this tradition with its feasting and affirmation of spring from its “genuine historical roots.” And I can celebrate “our blue green planet earth, resurrected anew each spring.”
In addition to not having to twist my mind around, I no longer have to accept some of the Christian beliefs and practices that involve domination, conquest, and subjugation.” Growing up in a Catholic church, each time I entered the sanctuary I saw the enormous cross with a giant Jesus nailed to it. He was crowned with wicked-sharp thorns, and a long stab wound in his side. This cross hung prominently over the altar. I never ever had positive affirming feelings about that cross with the dead Jesus on it. I remember visiting a Catholic church in New Mexico; inside it was a life size crypt with Jesus in it, cut, bloody and dead. The focus on Jesus’ torment and death is not a story I choose to go deeper into. At least for me, the focus on the death is more about domination and subjugation than celebration and joy.
However, the story of a resurrection, well that is something that is something I can relate to. Not death and resurrection to absolve all people of original sin—that was not part of the early Christian beliefs—but a resurrection of paradise on earth. I see that each spring as plants green and flowers blossom and creatures return—I am particularly fond of the return of fireflies on spring nights. I can also relate to the story whenever I am going through a very painful time in my life. When my father died for instance, I had hope that I would make it through that time, that I would feel alive again and fully re-engage with life after a period of intense morning and loss, in a sense feeling dead inside. There are certainly other rebirth stories that offer me hope, in which I experience this process of emotional death and resurrection, universal stories about a very human condition that we have all experienced and probably will experience again. This makes sense to me. This way of experiencing this Christian myth and re-experiencing it each year as Easter rolls around, is an emotional touchstone for me.
As I consider what I hold onto about the Easter story and what I let go of, I invite you to do the same. It is unnecessary to throw the baby—in this case Easter—out with the bathwater—all the troublesome beliefs and traditions surrounding Easter. Explore what has meaning for you and what brings you joy this time of the year. Consider what stories or myths resonate with you and go deeper into them. Maybe you, like the early Christians, will find in the story of Jesus’ resurrection an affirmation that love is stronger than empire, and that heaven is possible, at least occasionally and at times briefly, here on earth, not in some afterlife.
I end with a portion of the Christian Easter story, when Mary Magdalene sees Jesus after his resurrection. As you listen, notice what you resonate with, what you want to explore more deeply. Don’t look for what you reject and don’t want to bring into your life, you probably already know all about that. (John 20) "11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, 'Why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?' Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, 'Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, Rab-bo′ni!' (which means Teacher). [as she recognized him]."