From the Nazi Holocaust emerged one benefit—Christian acceptance of our Jewish roots and apologies for past persecution. More difficult is accepting our pagan roots. When will we hear apologies for corrupting the very meaning of the word "pagan"?
Mediterranean cultures—Arabian, Egyptian, Sumerian and others—had gods and goddesses who died and rose in three days. Christian teaching used to represent these deities as foolish and phony, at best a preparation for Christ. This claim rarely comes from theologians any more, but many Christians still think our own God-image is unique and that the Resurrection proves Jesus’ divinity.
Celts, Native Americans, Hindus, and people of other cultures around the world also had mythical heroes whose life, death, and rebirth or Second Coming were celebrated. We can do what Christian teaching used to do—deride all the other myths and insist ours is uniquely correct. Or we can ask, What explains the remarkable Hero with a Thousand Faces (one of Joseph Campbell’s book titles)?
Campbell, Carl Jung and other mythologists provide answers that I pass on in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, but here I want to dwell on the Resurrection.
Dying and rising sums up the human condition and the activity of the universe. Things are always either growing or declining. Transformation occurs constantly. “This too shall pass” replies an Eastern sage to the request for a statement that will always be true.
Christian literature repeats the theme with more than the myth of Christ. We have the Passover and the paschal mystery and the verse in John 12:24: “Unless a grain of wheat falls down and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
The Letter of First Clement was part of the New Testament canon in parts of Christian antiquity. It tells of the phoenix, a mythical bird that lives for 500 years, dies by igniting its own burial nest, then rises renewed from the ashes.
First Clement links Jesus’ death and resurrection to those of the phoenix, but my patristics professor downplayed this passage in First Clement, maybe to preserve the uniqueness of the Christian Resurrection. Job 29:18 also mentions the phoenix, and the symbol lives on in our culture.
Many years ago I got an excited response when a friend learned I was driving a car called the Phoenix. She knew its mythological significance and led me to it. It was a time of dying and rising for me; I call it my womb/tomb time. That period in my life continues to teach me about the paschal mystery, and I know other human lives have such transformative passages.
Life is a series of changes and every change is a little death and resurrection. The last child leaves home and the parents have to renew their marriage. A beloved job or career ends and a new door opens. Every reader can add examples.
Holy Week—April 10, 2009
Christian churches this week are concentrating on the death and resurrection of a man who lived 2000 years ago, and many ignore the ongoing deaths and resurrections in the entire universe and in each individual.
I stopped going to Good Friday services because they elicit sorrow and guilt over one certain individual’s suffering—a narrow, literal understanding of the doctrine “Christ died for our sins.”
Understanding this doctrine symbolically opens and enlarges it to connect us with suffering individuals the world over, for instance, human rights workers imprisoned and tortured. They also are suffering for us, their acts benefit us all, and we bear some responsibility for their suffering.
But mostly we are responsible for yielding to the Self Within symbolized by the God-image Jesus Christ. We all resist it but we need to die a little every day, because “death is required for new life,” as Joseph Campbell said. This daily dying includes the pain of moving out of familiar and comfortable closets of thought. It’s no fun to let go of cherished beliefs, of illusions, of specific results we had in mind for the future. But this is the work of letting ourselves be transformed. And yielding to it IS work, inner work.
We say, “Let this cup pass.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And after years of resistance, “Not my will but Thine be done.”
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We don’t have to know what the fruit is or will be. But, damn, I want to know, I want to see results from my efforts. I don’t wanna just keep on keeping on, but I gotta.
My task: to be where I am, here in this small place, with these people, right here, right now.
Accept, surrender, and trust. Accept what is. Surrender to this reality without questioning or reasoning. And trust in the resurrection. See that it has already happened multiple times in my life. See, this and this and this turned out, and they looked impossible.
The outcomes don’t meet my expectations; no, eventually they’re better than I could have imagined. I don’t know what’s best for me; the inner Process does.
Enter the dark depth to let myself be changed. This is the Paschal Mystery, not only for believers in a particular resurrection in Palestine, but for everyone who’s alive.