Sunday, March 31, 2024

Skepticism, 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 sacramental communion in some congregations.  In the heyday of humanists in the ‘50s and ‘60s 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.

Although the Seder as we know it is a later ritual of Rabbinic Judaism, when 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.

Stripped down some sermons may follow these lines—

Easter’s date is tied to a Jewish calendar based on the cycles of the Moon.  Thus, Easter’s date  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 was a historic event that actually fell in the spring, the commemoration is firmly placed in that season of Rebirth.

This Easter spring will still seem 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. 


Paleolithic Goddess objects--the Earth Mother or fertility goddess.  Likely a precursor of the Bronze Age Astarte and perhaps even Ēostre herself.

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.


Saturday, March 30, 2024

Someone Blundered When RAF Bombers Were Sent on a Flight into Hell

An RAF Halifax unloads its bombs over a German urban target in a saturation raid like that planned for Nuremberg.  Unfortunately the night of the long planned raid the city was mostly shrouded in cloud cover.

Blame the fog of war, command stupidity, bad timing, bad weather, vainglory, stubbornness, or just bad luck.  Every war seems to produce on a large or small scale shake-your-head disasters that seem, in retrospect, that they could, or should have been avoided.  Think the Charge of the Light Brigade, Custer at Little Bighorn, Gallipoli, or just about the whole damned Vietnam War. 

80 years ago, on March 30, 1944 795 Royal Air Force bombers flew into disaster.  95 planes would be lost, more than 11% of those engaged.  Many more would land damaged and riddled with fighter cannon fire and flack.  545 officers and men were killed, more than 150 captured,   wounded are unavailable, but high.  The Nuremberg Raid was Bomber commands greatest loss of aircraft in a single operation and to make matters worse, the intended target suffered relatively light damage.

Other Allied air raids during the war would suffer even higher losses by percentage—the U.S. Army Air Force famous B-24 raid on the oil refineries around Ploiesti, Romania in 1943 resulted in the loss of 53 of a 174 planes.  But it was able to substantially destroy or damage its targets.  It was also, by scale, a much smaller operation than the Nuremberg Raid.

Conversely, later in the war, the industrial might of the United States was able to station an air armada of thousands of heavy bombers in Britain.  Some days almost all of them were engaged in action and on more than one very bad day, losses exceeded those at Nuremberg, but because of the total number involved, the percentage loss was much smaller.

The Nuremberg Raid was a night raid.  The RAF and United States Army Air Force (USAAF) had very different bombing strategies that had caused friction in the Allied high command.  In the end, it was agreed to allow each to wage its own campaign.  The USAAF with its high flying, heavily armed B-17s and B-24s, and their precision Norton bomb sights, elected to conduct a daylight campaign of precision strategic bombing targeting German industry and infrastructure as well military and naval targets.  In addition, by 1944 the Americans had fast, long range fighters like the P-51 Mustang that could provide fighter cover deep into enemy territory.

The British with their lighter aircraft preferred night time saturation bombing.  They targeted cities and towns aiming to smother high explosives.  Certainly, damage would be done to industry and infrastructure in the process, but it was essentially terror bombing aimed at the civilian population in order to “break the enemy’s will to fight.”  Part of it was to mock Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Görings boast that his flyers would prevent “a single bomb” from falling on German soil.  And part of it was outright revenge for the Blitz.  Night bombing also compensated for the fact that until bases could be secured in France, the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes did not have enough range to provide fighter cover.

By March of 1944 plenty of RAF bombs had fallen on German cities.  Cities like Manheim, Cologne, and above all the capital of Berlin had already been targeted leaving behind large swaths of smoking rubble and huge civilian casualties.

The heart of Nuremberg was quaint and medieval, but the "Spiritual heart of Nazism" was marked for destruction at the highest levels in Britain.

The next target was Nuremberg, a city of about 150,000.  Although it certainly had industrial targets, it was not an important cog in the Nazi war machine.  But, as the site of Hittlers famous, highly choreographed pre-war rallies, it was considered the “spiritual heart of Nazism.”  It was to be the last of the big RAF raids on cities before Bomber Command would turn its attention to support of the coming Normandy invasion.

The raid was carefully planned.  A route was mapped out that would have the formations cross the European coast over Belgium then wheel and make a direct dash for Nuremberg.  Some diversionary sorties would be flown in hopes of confusing German defenses, but far fewer than those employed in the earlier raids.  Also, the relatively direct route to the target was a departure from the practice of making several course corrections to confuse the enemy.  It was thought that this itself would be a surprise.

The day before the raid RAF meteorologists relying on reports from Mosquito weather planes flying over the continent concluded that there would be cloud cover over the Belgian coast to shield the formations from the bright half-moon and clear skies over the target which would make it easy for pathfinders to mark out the target with incendiaries.  These were ideal conditions.

Versatile little RAF de Havilland Mosquitos, a pesky wood-framed multi-use light bomber, played several roles in the Nuremberg raid including providing weather observations over the Continent, flying decoy missions, and dropping incendiary markers for the main bomber formations

But around noon on the 30th new reports from the Mosquitos showed clouds forming over Nuremberg and clearing skies over Belgium.  Deputy Commander Sir Robert Saundby said after the war, “I can say that, in view of the meteorological report and other conditions, everyone, including myself, expected the C-in-C (Commander in Chief) to cancel the raid. We were most surprised when he did not. I thought perhaps there was some top-secret political reason for the raid, something too top-secret for even me to know.”

Air crews were never informed of the changed conditions into which they would fly.

At the appointed hour 572 Lancasters, 214 Halifaxes and 9 Mosquitos took off on the main mission.  Due to the usual mechanical problems and malfunctioning electronics several planes turned back.  About 750 made it to the Belgian coast.

Meanwhile forces of light Mosquitos and a flight of Halifaxes flew diversionary flights that included 49 Halifaxes minelaying in the Heligoland area, 13 Mosquitos to night-fighter airfields, 34 Mosquitos on diversions to Aachen, Cologne, and Kassel.

The German command was not fooled.  And when the bombers came over the coast not only were they silhouetted against the moonlight, their contrails were clearly visible.  German radio crackled.  Over 200 night-fighters were scrambled on their way to the Ida and Otto beacons which neatly straddled the raiders’ course.  The British were flying directly into a virtual ambush.

The night fighters were among Germany’s best, mostly Me-109s, Me-110s and JU-88s.  Many were armed with new twin 20 mm cannons mounted on either side of the nose at an upward angle and a slight spread. Known as   Schräge Musik (slanting music) these weapons allowed a new tactic.  Fighters attacked from below, never seen or detected by the bombers’s gun crews.  They flew within a few hundred feet and let loose fire that straddled the bomb-laden fuselage and tore into both wings with their heavy loads of fuel.

The wreckage of an RAF bomber and its dead crew after the Nuremberg Raid.

The first bombers fell shortly after clearing the coast to heavy flack.  That gave way soon enough to the swarms of night fighters tearing into the formations with deadly accuracy and effect.  At least two Luftwaffe pilots personally downed four planes each.  Another destroyed two bombers in less than two minutes.

The night fighters continued to bring down the lumbering bombers for the next 45 miles until they finally disappeared into the clouds that would also obscure the target.  Not only had the attacks somewhat broken the formations, but an unexpected cross wind also began to blow some off course.  Leading the way the versatile little Mosquitos were the Pathfinders charged with marking the bombing range.  Two got off course marking a mostly rural area near Lauf ten miles distant.  150 of the bombers followed them, dumping their bombs mostly uselessly in the fields, although three ball bearing plants—a high priority for American strategic bombers—were inadvertently hit and sustained moderate damage, but not enough to put them out of commission.

Even those pathfinders that did find Nuremburg found that smoke from their incendiaries was blowing away from the city.  In addition, some pilots mistook the burning wreckage of other bombers as signals.  As a result, and under intense ground anti-aircraft fire, many of the bombs fell harmlessly away from the city.

German records indicated that Nuremberg suffered “133 killed (75 in city itself), 412 injured; 198 homes destroyed, 3,804 damaged, 11,000 homeless. Fires started: 120 large, 485 medium / small. Industrial damage: railway lines cut, and major damage to three large factories; 96 industrial buildings destroyed or seriously damaged.”  This was hardly insignificant.  But had the raid proceeded as planned, the city would have been virtually leveled.

On the way back the planes continued to be hectored by fighters and targeted by flack.  But the formations were broken and planes were widely scattered.  Only a handful more were shot down on the long three hour flight home, bucking a heavy headwind almost all of the way.  But several damaged planes crashed along the way.  11 made it all the way back to England only to crash either because of battle damage or because they had run out of fuel.

After all of these years it is still unclear how high the decision to go ahead with the Nuremberg Raid despite drastically altered and adverse weather conditions went.  Bomber Command Chief Air Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris told his pilots that the raid was "dear to Churchill's heart." Was 10 Downing Street where the buck stopped?

There was no way around it.  The raid was a disaster, more so because the heavy losses were experienced without the mission being anywhere near satisfactorily completed.

The question remains to this day, why was not the mission scrubbed after the revised weather forecasts came in?  Bomber Command’s Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris?  Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur Tedder, Air Commander-in-Chief, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF)?  Or perhaps even to Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself?  After all, in pre-mission briefings pilots were told that the Nuremberg raid was, “…a target he [Harris] knows is very dear to Churchill’s heart.”