Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter and the Rites of Spring

The central miracle of Christianity gives some folks the hives.

It is Easter, the holiest day of the year for traditional Christians, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, the conformation of him as the Christ, and the promise of eternal life for those who believe.  It’s powerful stuff that brings comfort and hope to millions.
It also gives some folks the willies, the hives, or both.  And a lot of those folks end up in Unitarian Universalist congregations.  That’s gotta make it tough for our preachers—ahem ministers since we tend to cringe at the sound of that old fashion word and all it connotes.  We are non-creedal and pride ourselves on being open and accepting to a wide variety of spiritual beliefs and practices united by covenant in communities that pledge mutual respect and support in the quest for meaning.  But on Easter, the stresses sometimes show.
There are congregations where half the members stay home lest they endure the obligatory “annual Christian” sermon or even in some congregations sacramental communion.  In the hay day of humanists in the 50’s and 60’s when they dominated many congregations, Easter was even the occasion of more of a debunking lecture than a sermon.  You don’t see that so much anymore both because the humanists, who still make up the largest philosophic segment of UU membership, have lost a little of that particular chip on the shoulder, and because of a general rise in spirituality in our communities including various stripes of theism and pantheism.
That includes self-identified Christians and many others who identify themselves as “followers of the religion of Jesus not about Jesus,” meaning the rabbi of the Sermon on the Mount, and not necessarily who may have rolled the stone away to unseal his own tomb.
Since the World Parliament of Religions during the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 Unitarians and Universalists have become ever more aware of non-Abramic and traditional world religions.  Seeking and finding the underlying, uniting universal principles among them has become our hobby horse.  Among the probably not terribly surprising discoveries is the idea that spiritual practice as expressed in ritual is closely linked to the repeating cycles of the seasons.
Many of our Easter services make this a central theme.  It is in our wheel house.  It is sometimes done with embarrassing shallowness as a pared down metaphor that the minister can’t quite get his or her heart into.  But in the right hands powerful truths are explored and unexpected depths plumbed.
Stripped down some sermons may follow these lines—

Although the Seder as we know it is a later ritual of Rabbinic Judaism, is Jesus assembled his disciples, it was likely some sort of ritual meal commemorating Passover.  In fact this sort of informal tradition was probably preferred by the "rebel Jesus" to Temple rituals by the Pharisees.
Easter’s date is tied to a Jewish calendar based on the cycles of the moon.  Thus Easter’s date slowly changes relative to our current solar-based Gregorian calendar and slowly creeps forward such that it would ultimately slip out of spring entirely—except  that the “reset” from the Julian to Gregorian solar calendars in the 18th Century keeps the holiday in the spring.
Easter is tied to the Jewish calendar because Jesus and his disciples chose to travel to Jerusalem to observe Passover.  Jesus and his disciples were religious Jews and the Last Supper was a Seder.
Passover celebrates the Moses-led miracle that saved the tribes of Abraham from bondage in Egypt—a virtual rebirth as a people and nation.  For centuries the Yahweh-worshiping tribes who came to be known as Jews commemorated that miracle in lambing season, perhaps because it was blood of sacrificed lambs that was smeared on Jewish lintels that signaled to the Angel to “pass-overJewish homes—when the eldest sons from all other Egyptian homes were killed—the  final catastrophe that convinced Pharaoh at last to free his slaves.
Whether or not Passover as a historic event that actually fell in the spring, the commemoration is firmly placed in that season of Rebirth.
This Easter spring will still seems new, the annual explosion of new life just getting under way.  And in a way that is good.  The crocuses and daffodils remind us that in some ways the central Christian story—the death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven of Jesus—commemorates also the resurrection of nature we see around us every spring. 
Celebrating the annual rebirth of nature cuts across and unites huge sectors of all cultures and religions.
While the Jews were celebrating Passover, their cousin tribes who worshiped Baal and the ancient fertility goddess Astarte (who some paleontologists find represented in the tiny pregnant female torsos found in Paleolithic sites) also held rituals that celebrated the season.  The Seleucid Greeks who had once conquered Judea, as well as those Romans who occupied the country in the time of Jesus, both had spring festivals associated with fertility goddesses.

Very little is known about Ēostre or how her cult was actually celebrated in Spring rituals.  Much was imagined and projected by the Romantic founders of Neo-paganism in the 19th Century.  This fantastic depiction of her summoning the fairies, sprites,, and spirits of the natural world is an over-the-top depiction of that fantasy. 

In northern Europe long before Christianity was born, tribes celebrated the return of spring with a grand festival to commemorate their goddess of fertility and springtime.  Among the Anglo-Saxons in Britain and possibly Germanic tribes in Europe,  that goddess was named Ēostre or Ostara.
Like many traditional gods and goddesses associated with nature, Ēostre was often represented by the rabbit, that most fertile and prolific of all warm-blooded creatures.  But some scholars believe that identification may have been grafted onto almost forgotten festivals by 19th Century neo-pagans.
During the 2nd Century of the Christian era, when missionaries found that the rebirth holiday of those Ēostre-celebrating tribes coincided with the Christian observance of the resurrection of Christ, what could be more fitting than to join these two together into one holy day.

For many it's all about the Easter Bunny and eggs, which might be seen a symbols of fertility and new birth adaptable to both Christian and pagan traditions.  But for many secular families with small children it is the whole reason for celebration.

Today our spring ceremony mostly still celebrates an Easter with chocolate bunnies and eggs side by side with a Risen-is-Christ Easter observance—joining together several traditions, like many other Christian customs do, like the Yule log, hanging of greens, and erection of an evergreen tree alongside the Crèche at Christmas time. 
One way or another, Passover, Ēostre, and Easter, all celebrate rebirth and renewal.

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