Sunday, March 27, 2016
From a religious point of view, Easter is a more important Christian feast than Christmas, but it gets less attention because there’s less money to be made from Easter. So much for our supposedly Christian nation.
Like Christmas, Easter derives from pagan myth and ritual. The ancient religions surrounding the first Christians celebrated various saviors coming down from heaven and going back up to heaven.
A striking parallel to Easter is reported by church historian Henry Chadwick. He tells of the god Mithris, whose death was mourned on March 22 and resurrection celebrated on March 25.
The likeness of Good Friday and Easter to religious festivals of the pagans prompted them to accuse Christians of plagiarism. Besides the idea of dying and rising again in three days, Christians apparently borrowed ritual ideas.
My reporting this may give the impression that I have little respect for Holy Week and Easter. Wrong. I regard the Paschal mystery as a profound spiritual mystery, one centered on transformation, one that grows in meaning as I grow older.
But it doesn’t belong to Christians alone. Our tradition received appreciation of the link between dying and rising from both Judaism and paganism. Mythologist Joseph Campbell found thousands of transformation stories in myths of the world.
The word “paschal” is derived from the Hebrew word for the annual Passover celebration, when Jews commemorate their deliverance from Egypt. God brought death to Egyptian homes but passed over Hebrew homes on the night of their escape. They celebrate their break from bondage, the promise of a new home, and their birth as Yahweh’s people.
New Testament accounts say that Jesus was put to death on or around Passover, and so Christians and Jews celebrate the feast most important to them at the same time.
Pagan religious festivals honored several deities who died and rose in three days. The region where Christianity began teemed with death and resurrection stories prefiguring that of Christ.
Especially poignant is the story of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, who gifted humankind with fertile land and bountiful harvests. Persephone is playing in a field when she is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld and brother of Zeus, who is Persephone's father.
Heartbroken and mourning fiercely, Demeter learns what happened. She vows never again to let the earth be fruitful until her daughter is restored to her. Zeus relents, but Persephone has to spend part of the year above and part of the year below. When she arises every spring, the earth turns green again.
This mother/daughter story balances against the father/son story of Christianity as both portray the central figure dying and rising—both symbols of transformation. And the Eleusinian Mysteries, which commemorated Persephone’s rise, were celebrated for almost two thousand years, about as long as Christianity is old.
These mysteries had much in common with Holy Week mysteries. Initiation, fasting, and extensive preparation preceded them. There were processions, music, purifying with water, ritual eating and drinking, fire and light symbolism—all the elements of masterful Holy Week liturgies.
At the climax of the Eleusinian Mysteries, participants had a beatific vision that released them from the fear of death. They were transformed. Christians are urged to be transformed into new people, to die to our old selves and rise to new selves. But transformation from death to life permeates all of existence.
New shoots in spring arise out of dead vegetation left by winter. The end of a job opens the door to a new path in life. Births and deaths come together in uncanny ways. More than one family has seen new grandchildren arriving upon the passing of a grandparent.
The Paschal mystery tells us that beginnings and endings are joined in a mysterious way. John 12:24 states, “Unless a grain of wheat fall to the earth and dies it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it produces much fruit.”
Understanding this soothes the pain of change. Every end’s sadness opens to a fresh beginning. Easter and other religious myths and rituals symbolize this holiness in all creation.
Good Friday, March 21, 2008
Last evening a performance of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly reminded me of Good Friday's larger, deeper significance.
An American Navy officer marries a geisha girl in Nagasaki with the intention of soon leaving her. With steadfast faith she waits with their young son for his return. He returns with his American bride to take their son away from her.
She is Christ on the cross.
And Christ is Annemarie in Rwanda. Her son was born in the middle of the genocide. “My child was almost a skeleton because I didn’t have milk in my breasts. But that man, that rapist was with me. He kept raping me again and again. . . . we went through torture like no other person has gone through.” About her son, now 11, she says, “He is the only life I have. . . . If I didn’t have him, I don’t know what I would be.”
And Christ is the Shi’ite man in Baghdad kidnapped by Sunni militia, beheaded, and left on the street to terrorize others. And Christ is the Sunni victim of ethnic cleansing in Iraq.
And Christ is the people of Zimbabwe terrorized by their president Robert Mugabe. And the people of Uzbekistan terrorized by their president Islam Karimov.
And Christ is the families in New Orleans displaced by Hurricane Katrina and now sickened by formaldehyde fumes from their FEMA trailers.
Good Friday services that fail to remind people of the suffering Christ in the world today fail as Good Friday services.
Thursday, March 17, 2016
Her Faith Is Mine February 12, 2016
Although born and bred Catholic and from earliest childhood interested in spirituality, I began to question as a young child. Or did I perhaps question for that reason?
I read extensively and tried many paths, stayed away from the Catholic Church for a time, but never from God. Since then I have made my peace with the institution, knowing that its officials have the faults and weaknesses of us all.
I live an intense life of faith, celebrating daily worship by maintaining contact with the Creator/Jesus/God/One Source of all Being. From day to day, the face of this power shifts as my moods shift, depending on my experiences and sources of inspiration.
My childhood image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, now gives way to images more diffuse, ineffable, exalted, unbelievably near and trusted, but formless Being. Whatever the form imagined, uniting with it brings solace, power, joy, confidence and hope.
Friday, March 11, 2016
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).
Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Lk 7:34)!
Saturday, February 27, 2016
Unfortunately, Bible translations commonly render El Shaddai as "God Almighty," following early influential translations. But "God Almighty" subverts the original meaning, as shown by David Biale in a February 1982 article for the journaal, History of Religions.
blessings of the heavens above,
blessings of the abyss below,
blessings of breasts [shadayim] and womb [rehem]
blessings of fresh grain and blossoms,
blessings of the everlasting mountains,
delights of the eternal hills.
The entire process of birthing has been attributed to the deity. In various passages,
God conceives, is pregnant, writhes in labor pains, brings forth a child, and nurses it.
understandable that the Septuagint and the Vulgate [two influential translations] should render Shaddai as the ‘Almighty.’
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Friday, February 19, 2016
Friday, January 15, 2016
Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, exploded with this statement in the students’ dining hall at St. John’s.
It’s not the Resurrection, dammit! It’s the Incarnation!An editorial in National Catholic Reporter reminded me of this story in The Monk’s Tale, a biography of Diekmann by Kathleen Hughes. When I was at the School of Theology, she came onto the Collegeville campus to gather stories for her book about our colorful and inspirational professor, Godfrey, as he was known by students and fellow professors. The first-name basis at SOT is one of my fond memories of those years, and I’m proud to have my own memories of Godfrey Diekmann, who played an important role in contemporary Church history.
Godfrey passionately preached the implications of the Mystical Body—that we share divinity. This is the Incarnation, and Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation. In the traditional Christian perspective, God’s entry into time and history happened at the birth of the Nazarene, Jesus. But let’s not worship an external God-image, which is a form of idolatry. We incarnate or embody the Divine. We are the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ, and I don’t mean a man, and by “we” I don’t mean only Christians. Divinity resides in the heart of the Hindu, Inuit, Muslim, Sikh, animist, whatever. Eternity is enfleshed in all creation, and our distinctly human task is to consciously advance this process of Incarnation.
When I said something like this in a blogspot a long time ago, someone commented that non-Christians would object to being called “the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ.” I have to agree. I’m doing my best here to bridge Christian doctrine with other spiritual systems, and I inevitably offend one side or the other. Speaking as a Christian, I’m comfortable with Christian terms, but I have no patience with traditionalists bent on preserving the literal and exclusive understanding of our religious doctrines.
A Buddhist interviewed in Sacred Journey (summer 2009), said of the Dalai Lama,
He feels that even if someone is beating his body, underneath the cells of his body is the realm of pure light that is blissful. . . . welling up from the core of the reality of life, an infinite sustaining energy, which is what I think all highly spiritually developed people tap into, whatever they call it.How well this captures incarnational possibility!
I think that, if Godfrey were working in this new century with its wealth of alternative spiritual voices, he would have listened. He would have synthesized the Dalai Lama’s view with Paul’s “Christ lives in me.” And he might even have seen the link with secular humanism, which more than religions has advanced human dignity and human rights around the world.
Carl Jung led the way toward integrating Christian doctrine with secular spirituality. He showed that our thinking I, our ego or conscious mind, needs to become aware of our unconscious totality, our Higher Self. And this inner Self “cannot be distinguished from God-images,” Christ, of course, the prominent example. How do we achieve this union of ego with divinity? Jung, the depth psychologist, said, “God becomes manifest in the human act of reflection.” But I like the Christian image of becoming “the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ.”
We are called to become Mothers of God in a Virgin Birth.
Now a response to my latest posts that came to me by email. I got permission to quote Ron Ohmann because his comment may help others to understand my message:
Thanks, Jeanette. Although we enjoy the prevailing Catholic/Christian "take" on Christmas, we remind ourselves it is largely mythology. It really is beautiful mythology which is why it has such strong cultural appeal, I suppose. But, as thinking Catholics who read Bp.J.W.Spong, yourself, and others, we are, I believe, more realistic regarding Christmas and other aspects of Christianity. It is, I feel, the only way one can truly grow spiritually as a Christian. Happy New Year, Ron