In some times and places, the conflict was fairly overt: you might have secular humanists really arguing with UU Christians and UU pagans completely outraged at the long-ago co-optation of their traditions, while people of a more Eastern mindset sat back a little smugly to watch the fray. We spent a long season arguing, rather than loving. Maybe not here. But in a lot of congregations.
We’ve really come a long way since then, but that doesn’t mean the Easter Issue is resolved. On both our Unitarian and Universalist sides, we come from a Judeo-Christian tradition. The centering message of Jesus’ life – and his death – are a part of our inheritance. At the same time, there is not a widespread UU belief in the literal resurrection of the body of Jesus. When you add to this the strange conflation of older pagan traditions – egg hunting, the centrality of the rabbit, both symbols of fertility – then throw in a lot of candy…well. Spiritually, at best what you have is a bit of a mess.
But still it remains. And I believe for good reason. We each need Easter. We each require resurrection. We have all lived through a long season of Passover, when we pray the Angel of Death will pass us and our loved ones by. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t, and then more than ever, we need the promise of life on the other side.
It’s fairly simple to turn and point to spring as another metaphor, and in fact, in my own heart, that is where I best find Easter – the promise that life always returns, that life rises up again and again. But I think the reason there are competing metaphors…Persephone coming up from Hades, returning to her mother and her mother Demeter, in joy, allowing life to flow again…Jesus, crucified and then raised up again to return and give hope to his frightened and demoralized companions…In Islam, it is said that Jesus did not die by crucifixion, but that “God raised him to Godself,” which is yet another way of saying he cheated death. All these different ways of presenting the idea…it’s because spring is an act of survival, but the resurrection stories are stories of Love. And we need to understand these two as intertwined. We need a celebration, a time of remembrance and gratitude, that says that Life itself is stronger than individual death, and Love is what carries us through the long winters of the spirit, and back to Life again.
In one of those marvelous moments of grace, it happens that I was reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Ani these last few days, and after we finished it, we watched the movie also. Most of you are familiar with this story, and also that it is C.S. Lewis’ great re-imagining of the Christian story – Aslan, the great lion, is Jesus, and many of the Christian stories are built in…the fall from Eden, and very specifically, the resurrection.
While I was reading it, when we got to the part where the White Witch kills Jesus in Edmund’s stead – spoiler alert, if you haven’t read it – Ani was distressed. Highly distressed, really. She wanted to stop reading the book. This is the same child who’s read and seen all the Harry Potters several times over. I basically had to insist she stick with it through the hard part…the loss, the sorrow, the devastation of losing someone you loved so deeply, whose presence you felt was so central to the world being a safe and possible place. Then crack – the Stone Table is broken, and Aslan returns, because a Love that will face even death is the Love that makes all things new again. In the face of a Love willing to risk and give anything, even death cannot stand. I have never once read this story without crying. The story of redeeming Love is powerful. Ani felt it, like the generations before her.
I think Lewis and the Narnia stories add something to the mix: when Aslan returns, justice is empowered. While admittedly retributional in nature, we UUs have a passion for justice. A story about a Love willing to sacrifice itself is not quite enough. We also long to hear that when we show our greatest Love, when we bravely face our fears and survive the season of Passover or the long winter, then with Life comes the power and spirit to make change, to do what we can to right wrongs, a reminder that we need one another and we need that greater Love to sustain us. I think this is the power of the supernatural elements in these resurrection stories: Persephone, Jesus, Aslan, Osiris. It’s been our way of expressing that deep and powerful experience of the something more — the kind of Love that moves us to awe and wonder, to being willing to sacrifice for a greater good, a Love that shines out on even the darkest night of the soul. It is so deep it transcends our usual language, so we reach for the metaphors, both human and natural, that help us experience that.
The Narnia story also adds one other piece that calls out to our universalism. Edmund, the Judas of Lewis’ story, is not only saved – literally – by Aslan, but Aslan’s love and sacrifice does redeem him. He becomes King Edmund the Just, the one to whom the others turn when they need wisdom about how to respond to the injustices and cruelties of the world. Edmund has caused suffering and has known suffering; he has also known an unearned grace, and it changes him utterly, so that he is a gift to the world. Quite different from Judas’ fate – taking his own life in shame and guilt, spending 2000 years in infamy. What shall we take from Love? Will we allow it to transform us, or will we turn from it when it is offered, and nurture despair?
In the end, what I hope you might carry with you today is that Easter matters. It’s not just a children’s holiday with too much candy, though when we are careless, it is just that. Easter is our call to remember: what has passed away? What has suffering brought us? What needs to be reborn? What metaphor or experience pulls you back to Life, to being able to Love more deeply or feel Loved more deeply?
Easter has come, by calendar and arising from the earth. We need ritual to solemnize this. The egg is the symbol of fertility – life’s insistence on becoming and returning and making more of itself. The coloring of the eggs may come from an old story in the apocrypha about how Mary Magdalene, after Jesus’ death, gained audience with the Emperor Tiberius Caesar, and, offering the Emperor an egg representing the stone which had been rolled away from the tomb, declared “Jesus is risen!” The Emperor demurred, retorting, “It is as impossible for a man to rise from the dead as it is for that egg to turn red.” And according to legend, before Ceasar, the egg turned bright red in Mary’s hand. Thus Mary was able, too, to explain that the red egg symbolized life rising from a sealed chamber, a metaphor which is was easily able to understand and accept.
So what shall be our ritual? Our ritual to simply acknowledge, in awe and reverence, the simple truth that Life finds a way? That Love transcends death? I know there is not one person in this room who does not love someone who has died. Did you love for them die, too? No. Love lives on. So I’d like to invite you now to simply sit with your own thoughts of Easter. What is rising in you? What do you long to see reborn? Where do you hope Love will lead in the coming days? As you take a little time to think about this, will you write a blessing or wish or good hope that you have for others here today? Then we will bring those blessings forward…etc. The sweetness of the promise of the season…