Easter Sermon, April 15, 2001
Molly Young Brown, M.Div.
(This sermon was written five months before 9/11 and the horrors that followed: the second Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan.)
I want to tell a familiar story today, the story of Easter. Let’s listen to this story with fresh ears, letting go of old associations and reactivity to this story, and see if we can find new meaning in it.
About 2000 years ago, a man named Jesus appeared among the people of Israel (who were under Roman rule) and began to teach of love, brotherhood, and forgiveness. He had worked as a carpenter until the age of 30, when he began to teach. The poor especially thronged to hear him speak, inspired and healed by his teachings Gradually he attracted a large following, and, as rumors of his miracles spread, he came to the attention of the Roman authorities. People were beginning to call him “the king of the Jews,” because they saw in him a long-prophesied savior, whom they had come to believe would release them from Roman oppression. Both the Jewish and the Roman authorities were sufficiently threatened by his popularity that they decided to put him to death by crucifixion, a common means of execution in those times. A local official, Pontius Pilate, who might have saved him, publicly washed his hands of responsibility.
As the story goes, Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples, Judas, for 30 pieces of silver. Another disciple, Peter, denied three times that he knew him. People gathered at the public Crucifixion included his disciples and his mother, as well as many former followers who were bitter that man who they believed to be a Savior could not even save himself. While on the cross, he called out “O God, why have you forsaken me?” and then, as he died, “It is finished.” In utter despair, his disciples removed his body and buried it in a tomb.
The story tells us that three days later, when his disciples went to pray at his tomb, they found the stone at the door rolled back, and his body gone. Later he appeared to his disciples, resurrected, restoring their faith and hope. He then ascended into heaven, to reunite with God. This is the event now celebrated at Easter.
We all know this story, no matter what our religious background or our belief in the veracity of its details. And like any good story, its meaning is open to interpretation. This afternoon I would like to consider some of the meanings ascribed to this story, setting aside for the moment concern about its historical validity. Let’s treat it as myth, one of the most influential myths of Western Civilization, and see what it has to teach us today.
Let’s begin by noticing the allusions to this story that have filled Western literature: betrayal and greed signified by “thirty pieces of silver” and “Judas’s kiss”, the crow of the cock announcing a denial of friendship; someone who has the power to prevent an injustice “washing his hands” of responsibility; the cross representing a life burden one must accept and endure; crucifixion representing martyrdom as well as humankind’s apparent tendency to turn against, and even kill, its greatest teachers and leaders. And of course resurrection representing the rising of the human spirit from the depths of despair, the rebirth of life each spring.
As Christianity became a formal religion (ostensibly based on Jesus’ teachings and the story of his life), Church officials needed to establish a calendar for observing the crucial events of that story. They chose a date close to the Winter Solstice for the birth of Jesus, a time when the return of the sun (now read Son) was traditionally celebrated by virtually all religions, folk and organized. They also co-opted a pagan spring festival–Easter–for their commemoration of the crucifixion and resurrection. Somehow the pagan name for this celebration has been retained. Easter is a form of Ostre, the northern German goddess of spring. We can trace that name, in turn, clear back to the Egyptian Hathor, and the Phoenician Astor, which also gave rise to the Mesopotamian Atar and the Hebrew Esther. In a stroke of political genius, Pope Gregory recommended in the later 6th century that the Church incorporate local deities into its religious traditions. The rabbit and her red eggs, both rather obvious symbols of fertility, had been associated with the Egyptian Hathor–hence the tradition of the Easter Bunny and colored eggs.
The Church fathers chose wisely; there seems to be an inherent response in all human beings–and no doubt in all creatures–to spring, its warming and longer days, the sprouting of green shoots even up through the lingering snow, the awakening from hibernation of many mammals, the northward migration of birds. How can we keep from rejoicing at this glorious time?
I remember a day during the Persian Gulf war when I was filled with a sense of doom, when it seemed there was no hope for humans to come back into harmony with themselves or with nature. I could see no future for us all other than an accelerating firestorm of environmental and social disasters, fueled by human short-sightedness, selfishness, and stupidity. I was living in Petaluma in the northern San Francisco Bay Area at the time, and went to a park west of town. I stood looking down at the town from a hillside, observing the rush of traffic on the freeway, the industrial buildings, the spreading developments of large expensive homes, wondering what hope there was for any of us. I couldn’t look at the town anymore, and lowered my gaze to the ground. There at my feet were the bright green shoots of new grasses and the buds of spring flowers. Nearby the trees bore sprouts of new leaves. Amazing! Here is life blossoming again, in spite of human insanity. The seeds and roots and stalks and branches giving rise again to life do not seem concerned about what we humans are up to; they just gave birth again in spring, as they always have, and always will, given the essentials of soil and water and warmth and light. Of course we can destroy these essentials, and have in many places around the planet. But still, there remain many places, large and small, where life can still return, and does return, year after year, especially in the spring. That moment of revelation has returned to me many times since, when I have felt most acutely the horror of what we humans are doing to our world.
Every religion in the world celebrates this miraculous return of life each spring; for Christians, this celebration is focused on the symbolism of the Resurrection.
Some Christian versions of the Easter story carry a very different message, however. They focus more on the Crucifixion than the Resurrection, and interpret the latter in ways that seem to deny the wonder of earthly life. As an adolescent, I read Nikos Kazantzakis’ extraordinary novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, and was deeply moved by it. In preparing for this sermon, I picked it up again, and now was dismayed to find these words in the prologue: “My principal anguish and the source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh.”
What kind of dualism is Kazantzakis setting up here? It seems quite contradictory to the celebration of life, or rebirth, that Easter has come to mean to me. I read on, hoping I have misunderstood him.
The anguish has been intense. I loved my body and did not want it to perish; I loved my soul and did not want it to decay. I have fought to reconcile these two primordial forces which are so contrary to each other, to make them realize that they are not enemies but, rather, fellow workers, so that they might rejoice in their harmony.
Well, this sounds a little better, although I remain uncomfortable with the thought of the flesh being somehow opposed to the soul, and there being a necessity for warlike struggle. But at least Kazantzakis speaks here of possible reconciliation, reunion. Can that be the meaning of Easter to him, the reconciliation of flesh and spirit? I read on:
Struggle between the flesh and the spirit, rebellion and resistance, reconciliation and submission, and finally–the supreme purpose of the struggle–union with God: this was the ascent taken by Christ, the ascent which he invites us to take as well, following his bloody footprints.
I am afraid he has lost me again. I have real trouble seeing life through this lens. I wonder sometimes if this struggle is really about testosterone, and therefore I don’t relate much to it. But as a theologian of sorts, I need to pay attention to this theme, this very common and historical interpretation of Easter. Through this lens, the Resurrection comes to represent the triumph of Spirit over Flesh and over death, rather than the rebirth of life in its myriad of fleshy forms. Maybe the Church fathers were quite cynical in their choice of the spring festival–maybe they wanted to replace the teaching of cyclical earthly rebirth with a transcendent world view which would enslave people psychologically to guilt, shame, and self-denial, making them easier to manipulate and oppress.
I would like to explore two related Christian interpretations of the story of Jesus. Traditional Christian dogma tells us that Jesus took the punishment for our sins on himself to save us from eternal damnation, and that he also saved us from death itself in the process, offering instead eternal life in heaven. The Crucifixion was the sacrifice for our sins, and the Resurrection was proof of Jesus’ divinity and triumph over death–now made available to all. No matter how we deeply we fall into sin, this interpretation of the story promises us not only redemption, but also eternal life. That seems like a lot to celebrate!
A yearning to overcome death seems to pervade the Western psyche. Somehow we Westerners have never been able to accept death. We set death in opposition to life, rather than understanding it as part of life. We cling to our separate individual identities, rather than accepting them as miraculous and temporary forms arising out of the creative diversity of life. We want to be permanent (man-made) structures, rather than blossoms which emerge for a while and then wither, giving rise in turn to the seeds of new life. Our fear of death, which we see as absolute, brings us to hope for eternal life on some other plane of existence–in heaven with Jesus. And it makes us vulnerable to manipulation by those who promise us the Way to that eternal life, in return for our obedience to their versions of what is sin and what is virtue.
Nevertheless, even this interpretation of the story may carry teachings for us today, as we struggle to rediscover our essential interconnectedness within the web of life, and as we work to undo some of the damage done by the patriarchal, dualistic Western world view of the last 2000 years. It may help us to confront our own version of sin, and find hope for redemption and rebirth.
If we see Jesus or Christ as representing the Spirit of love, the Spirit of life itself, the Crucifixion and Resurrection take on new meaning. Our Industrial Growth Society crucifies this Christ every day: in Iraq, for example, where our cruel sanctions bring starvation and illness to innocent civilians, especially children; in sweatshops in developing countries that produce cheap goods for us by exploiting impoverished workers and the environment; and throughout the world as our corporations disrupt ecosystems and destroy species and biodiversity. When we confront our individual and collective participation in this massive wrong-doing, we are filled with horror and confusion. We look the other away; we betray our values for thirty pieces of silver (after all, we have to make a living!); we wash our hands of responsibility. We allow Christ to be crucified in our name. And, seeing this, we become paralyzed with guilt, fear, grief, and helplessness.
But even darkness and despair can serve a purpose, like the dark night of the soul. It strips us of our false pride, our hubris, and opens us to our radical dependency on something larger than our little ego selves.
The message of Easter, especially in its pagan origins, is one of hope, of the resilience of life, spirit, love. We always seem to get a second chance, an seemingly infinite number of chances, to awaken. This is how we can understand the Resurrection: the spirit of life and love is reborn in each moment, available always to awaken us to our interconnectedness with all life, to the joy of renewal and rebirth in spring.
As winter gives way to spring each year, we see that death is part of life, that death releases old forms to make way for the new. We live in a world of creative abundance, each form arising, offering its unique gifts to the whole, then letting go of its structure to provide compost for the new. The direction of the East (in Easter) in the medicine wheel of many indigenous cultures is the direction both of death and rebirth, returning to the Spirit–the whole–and reincarnating in new form, bringing Spirit ever freshly into life on/in this planet.
We can let ourselves be paralyzed with guilt and despair for the sins of humanity inflicted on this planet, or we can accept the forgiveness and revitalization of spring. We can find the miracle of death and rebirth within our own lives. We can invite life to move through us, through our emotions–even our pain and fear–through our affection for one another, through sensory experience of the natural world around us, and through art, music, and dance. The poet Gary Snyder suggests that our capacity for play and celebration connects us most deeply to nature. He writes, “If we are here for any good purpose at all, I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature. A gang of sexy primate clowns. All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.”
Mary Oliver tells us we don’t even have to be good!
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, not matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
(“Wild Geese,” from Dream Work by Mary Oliver, 1986, Atlantic Monthly Press)
As we open ourselves to the flow of life and rebirth within and around us, we are guided as well into effective action to heal and transform our world–as individuals and together. I believe that we can invite the spirit of life, love, and rebirth into not only our private, personal lives, but into the choices we make collectively as a society, as an economic system, as a political body. We can open to the influence of life and love in every breath we take, especially in this joyous spring season. For a moment, let us do just that: let us breathe together; let us breathe in the miracle of spring. (three deep breaths)
I will end with a poem from Rainer Maria Rilke, written about 100 years ago.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
(from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, 1996. Riverhead Books