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April 12, 2009: “Easter, The Message of Spring”

A rabbi said to a very active six-year-old boy: “So your mother says your prayers for you each night? Very commendable. What does she say?” The little boy replied, “Thank God he’s in bed!”

    A woman invited the minister and his wife to dinner after an   exhaustingly busy week. She had worked hard on this dinner, trying to impress the minister. At the table, she turned to her six-year-old daughter and said, "Would you like to say the blessing?"
I wouldn't know what to say," the little girl replied.
"Just say what you hear Mommy say" the mother said. The little   girl bowed her head and said, "Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite these people to dinner?"

One of my newly credentialed colleagues said after going through all the evaluations, internships, committee interviews, the real test of a new UU minister could be simplified down to just one requirement: ‘Explain Easter so that it makes sense to a UU Congregation’: Now, after serving a church for 16 years in San Antonio, I’d like to say that would be the easy part. The next part would be ‘OK, now preach 15 more Easter sermons without repeating yourself too much!’ That is assuming, of course, that anyone remembers what you said the year before, but you know that someone would! Or even worse that you might contradict what you said last year!

We celebrate Easter to celebrate spring because like the sap rising in the maple tree, it is in our blood, but also because the teachings of Jesus that love is the answer to life’s most difficult questions and people did not die when he did, but lived on.

Religious words are strange things, are they not? Meanings multiply and divide with time gone by, experiences from different mind sets and metaphors. Easter. Just a Christian holiday? Pagan Spring rites? Rabbits and eggs and candy. Resurrection. Jesus raised from the dead? It’s a confusing story when we begin to ask questions; indeed when we actually read the 4 different versions, 5 if you include the Apostle Paul’s, more questions than answers emerge from the empty tomb. Seasonal/religious holidays mix commerce, common culture, an ancient mixture of a variety of religions filtering down over eons and a scientific mindset with archaic religious language seemingly understood by a select few.

Yet, 2000 years later; here we are. Celebrating Easter. The very word has pagan origins-Eaostre-goddess of the dawn of spring. Imagine. We still have a need to somehow set apart a time of worship, a gathering of a congregation united by religious search for language to understand the mysterious. Deep in our blood pulses the ancient stirring in the Spring. We are, after all, part of nature; can’t you feel the growth spurt, the change in our human nature in the time of spring? It is a time of fertility and the birth of the young. “Spring,” said the famous Unitarian naturalist, Henry David Thoreau,”…is a natural resurrection, an experience of immortality.” It is no coincidence I want to argue that Easter vacation has been renamed Spring Break or that it has become once again suspiciously like the old pagan fertility rites of girls gone wild and boys too, of course! Not that I am condoning that, of course.

Birth. Life. Death. And then? Are we like perennial plants which come back every spring after appearing to die? Are the bulbs of Easter Lilies, tulips, another metaphor for the return of life after the seeming death of winter? Do the seasons themselves, certainly more than four, insinuate themselves into our psyches somehow? Indeed, we live out our lives in religious and psychological symbolism and metaphor whether or not we are aware of it. Religious language and ritual is time honored and time forgotten, lost in the mists of antiquity and so often one religion layers parts of a past religion upon their own to claim a relation that never was, but evolves just as clearly as if it were an organism itself, and perhaps, I might suggest here, that religion IS an organism itself or maybe part of that organism of God, Goddess or religious dimension, the holy, or whatever we want to call it, there seems to be an instinctual need in humanity for some kind of religious need and or ritual throughout history, and it is always related to the change of the seasons as is, of course, life itself.

Spring, of course, the most fertile of the seasons, lends itself to all sorts of myth and symbolism as well as ancient ritual and belief. In her book, In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth, from our Skinner House Press, Patricia Montley writes: ‘Though a latecomer to the pantheon of vegetation gods, the Christian Jesus fits the mythological pattern. A solar god, born at the winter solstice of a virgin mother made pregnant by a father god, he sacrifices himself for the benefit of humankind, endures suffering, dies, is buried, mourned by his mother and other women, descends to the underworld, and on the third day rises from the dead at the time of the Spring Equinox, when his conception is also celebrated. His resurrection- mirrored in the annual rising of spring flowers and the blossoming of the fruit trees – assures the eternal life of his followers. After two millennia, his worship continues.’ Does this sound like ancient mythology or current religious practice?

In ancient Greece, death and resurrection of Dionysus was celebrated. The Elusinian Mysteries, celebrated up until the 4th century CE reenacts the story with initiates of Demeter and Persephone. The ancient Germans celebrated the spring fertility goddess, Ostara, ‘the Radiant Dawn,’ who would mate with the solar god and have a son who e born at Yule, in mid-December! The Anglo-Saxons would call Eostre and celebrated her feast on the first full moon following the Spring Equinox.. Tied to Jewish holiday of Passover – – Jews celebrate two feasts- Purim and Passover – Purim around March 24 – remembering the saving of the Persian Jews through the brave intercession of Esther (whose name, by the way is a derivative of Ishtar or Astarte) Passover originally marks the beginning of the Spring barley harvest. Joseph Campbell notes the Passover was ‘first celebrated in 621 BCE on a date that coincided with that of the annual resurrection of Donis which became Easter in the Christian cult. But where the pagan and Christian myths celebrate the resurrection of a god, in the Hebrew myth the ‘chosen people’ themselves descend into an underworld(Egypt) where they experience suffering and death (slavery) and are resurrected (into the Promised Land).’

And these words, terms, symbols, metaphors of religion, are all subject to misunderstanding when they are supposed to last the test of thousands of years unchanged while humanity’s world view has changed, at least, on the surface. OR, you see, that’s the problem; some of us have changed our world views and some of us haven’t! Indeed, some of us in this country, and some countries in this world are like living in different worlds and times! No wonder we have a difficult time communicating!

Remember how some words or phrases are hard to translate from one language into another. No one can take the Bible literally because one first has to translate it and no one can translate literally! Indeed, one has to take the language as well as the time, the era and the use of language and idiom, say nothing about the fact that early Hebrew, for instance did not use vowels or punctuation! And even today, of course, translating from one language to another is difficult in regular words but slang is impossible. Even the brand names is difficult. In Spanish, Chevy had trouble selling its Chevy II model called the Nova, because it was made up of 2 words in Spanish that you might not want to use to made a car- ‘No’ and ‘va’ which basically means, ‘No run’ or ‘It doesn’t run!’ The advertising slogan ‘Come Alive with Pepsi’ lost something when it was translated into German:’Come Alive out of the Grave with Pepsi,’ or in one slavic country where it became, ‘Pepsi Brings your ancestors Back from the Grave.’

Easter is NOT just about religion but is somehow mysteriously connected to the season of Spring and the turning of the sun and the moon and the falling of the rain and blooming of the flowers and the magic of springtime in the air.

The ancient Sufi poet Rumi writes:
Lord, the air smells good today, straight from the mysteries
within the inner courts of God.
A grace like new clothes thrown
across the garden, free medicine for everybody.
The trees in their prayer, the birds in praise,
the first blue violets kneeling.
Whatever came from Being is caught up in being, drunkenly
forgetting the way back.

How many of us celebrate these seasonal holidays in some fashion though we may say we believe not a word of it? Some of us gathered to celebrate the Passover Seder dinner here on Wednesday under the careful eye of Sue Boerstein with many of those in attendance having been brought up Jewish and wanting to celebrate a part of their heritage. The hagadah or order of service, was put together by a UU minister who had also been raised Jewish, but Sue was careful to be as accurate, dare I say orthodox, as possible in what could be used for the dinner according to tradition, unleavened, etc. I found it to be a very spiritual occasion and had been asked to act as the rabbi which I was honored to do. I was not play acting, but reading in the tradition of. It was an honoring of the ancient Jewish tradition of Passover.

Today we honor the Christian tradition of Easter in a different way. Before Cathie and I had discovered UUism, because a friend had invited us, we celebrated Easter by dying Easter eggs and making Easter baskets with Jelly beans and chocolate bunnies and tulips even though we did not believe in any of it and didn’t go to any church. We might have said if asked, that we believed in God, sort of, but just liked to celebrate the holiday. I still associate the smell of vinegar with Easter and the dying of eggs from my and my children’s childhood. It is the same with Xmas for my family. In many ways, we might say it is not a religious holiday at all and Jesus is never mentioned. Santa and the Easter bunny are much more important.

Yet, think about it. Who was the marketing genius, the psychological wizard who thought up the idea that if you make the holiday attractive to children by making it colorful, full of chocolate, candy, and neat presents, they’ll celebrate it until they are old enough to realize the true spiritual significance and deeper meaning of the holiday, the turning of the seasons, and the relationship of love and the religious dimension with the beloved community of the church or synagogue or what have you, because in some ways, all religions do this.

For most of us here, though, it is the story of Easter that we speak of today, the message of Spring, the teachings of Jesus, and the lessons of love, the work of social justice that bring us meaning once the candy is eaten and the flowers are planted. Once church is over, if you will, the service begins!

We are part of nature, and we too want to bloom; yea, we all yearn to blossom. We want to grow and mature, to be fully all that we might be able to be, to achieve our full potential, to realize our connectedness, our at-one-ment with the rest of the universe. How does Easter help us? What IS the message of Spring? It is in the teachings of Jesus as well as Judaism and in all of the world’s religions if we will but look deep enough and then live out the lessons of love and compassion that did not die when Jesus was executed on Easter. Love does not die; love never dies. So rejoice: He is risen! She is risen! It is risen! Death is perennial. Death does not end relationship though it changes the shape and form of the one we love. While the husk may die, the bulb which is planted in just one loving heart lives forever. Think of that bulb that gives root to flower year after year, mysteriously.

The message of Spring, of Jesus, is that like the flower needs the soil and the sunshine and the rain, we need the love and the community of one another working toward transforming and repairing the world toward peace and justice. That hope springs eternal and love never dies, and all our lives we need one another, the world needs us and we need the world. We have the whole world in our hands, and we have the spirit of life within us. Yes, I see Jesus as the Lord of the dance, the brother of Buddha, the rabbi of love and compassion whose universal and unifying message of peace and social justice did not die. Let it be a dance.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapdted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ?Vaya con Dios? is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is ?Go with God,? SO I adapted it to say ?Vaya Con Su Dios, ?Go with your idea or interpretation of God.?

Amen, Peace, Love, Shalom, Salaam, Blessed Be,Namaste, Abrazo a Todos, Vaya con su Dios,

So the Easter Egg, Candy and Butterfly Communion:

The egg is one of the most ancient symbols of creation worldwide, and Egyptians, Greeks as well as the Anglo Saxons had a custom of putting eggs on in or on graves to ensue rebirth into eternal life. Ancient pagans often drew magical signs and symbols on eggs, and ancient cultures like the Egyptians and Romans would give eggs as gifts at the Spring Equinox, SO eggs have always been associated with fertility and many Christians saw the egg as a symbol of the risen Christ.

The Chinese poet – Wu Ming Fu address this in his poem-
The seed that is to grow must lose itself as seed;
And they that creep may graduate through chrysalis to butterfly wings.
Wilt thou then, O mortal, cling to husks which falsely seem to you the self?

 The cocoon is no longer important once the butterfly has risen from it. So we share butterflies to bring home with us, to remember this   Nature-Easter, this universal Spring celebration, and  may the spirit of life be with us, in us; indeed, may it be us.  Take these butterflies to remember the beauty of life despite the sorrow, to remember love, even in a time of hate, a time of peace in a time of war.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross who became so well known for her study of how people go through stages of grief was to once to visit the children’s wing of a concentration camp and she was dreading it. She couldn’t imagine anything more depressing and wondering how the children could have possibly coped. She really didn’t want to go, but felt she had to. Imagine her surprise when she found that children had drawn butterflies all over the walls as if in some unconscious hope of what resurrection, eternal hope. Or was it just that they represented freedom, beauty, fleeting happiness, childhood itself, for whatever reason they cheered her up as well and brought tears to her eyes at the same time for the deep symbolism. Butterflies of hope, of love, of childhood, of life over death, of springtime.

An Easter challenge “from writer, Joyce Rupp:
Each of us needs “tomb watches” every now and then. Maybe we are keeping vigil for a part of ourselves that lies dormant and seemingly dead or lost or has fallen into a coffin of depression or despair. Maybe that shrouded figure in us is the loss of a way to pray, a deadening unforgiveness, or a body experiencing its physical limitations. Maybe our “tomb watch” is our becoming the angel of vigil, attending someone else in pain. Maybe the vigil we keep is for the people of our world as we weep for their woe or for the Earth herself as she continues to experience humanity’s reckless waste and the grime of greed. We all have our angels…. they now wait with us until the light returns. And from these angels we learn how to tend the tombs of others, how to keep vigil with them in their dark dead times.

Easter is about "tomb watches".  It is about love that keeps vigil and waits and believes in life, no matter how dark and empty and cold the inner  space feels.  Easter is about hope that is willing to sit in the tomb while it trusts in transformation... Easter is about faithful companions who keep watch with us and cheer  us on as we wait for our inner resurrection.?   From OUT OF THE ORDINARY by Joyce Rupp