Friday, March 21, 2008

Easter symbolized

March 31, 2007
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.

3 comments:

SMK said...

You remind me of Dan Seals We are one.... I think you will like it.

Anonymous said...

I strongly suspect that those non-Christians whom you identify as "Christ" would resent the appellation. Universalizing Christ is the same type of intellectual violence as is perpetrated by the patriarchy. The indignity is intensified when one considers that, in the throes of desperation that some of them doubtless feel, are calling on their own vision of God for succor.

In the Islamic instance, Jesus is not very important -- and calling for his help is considered a blasphemy by many Muslims. Only God is worth worshiping, as Muslims testify in one of their four pillars. Not bound by Constantine's Nicean edict, Muslims do not recognize the "triune" nature of God that has bedeviled rational minds for the past 1600 or so years. Thus, imposing Christ onto their plight, while benignly intended on your part, evokes the same missionary attitude and unwelcome catholicism (lower case c) that has placed Islam and Christianity at odds since the decline of the Eastern Empire.

As a non-Christian myself, I would certainly feel consternation with a commentator who purported to be able to locate "Christ" in any of my struggles.

M. Stromer - Maryland, USA

Anonymous said...

This is in response to M. Stromer’s comment. What places some Muslims and Christians at odds is the inability by either side to recognize the universal values shared by each, in addition to the distortion of religion to further political ends or impose questionable mores. It is a shame that such interpretations exist, and that such resentment has festered over the ages. Myth is universal by nature. Christ’s experience on the cross, when seen as myth, is a fable that speaks to the universal human experience of suffering. Just like the myth of Sisyphus might speak to one who feels his/her endless toil is all for naught. Rather than describing the Christ evocation as an imposition, it might be better described as a comparison and commiseration (there was no mention of worshiping or calling on Christ for help). The same comparison can be made with any other human being or mythical figure that has ever had a cross to bear, so to speak. Indignation with such a comparison exemplifies and perpetuates the polarity between religions, and bypasses true spirituality. I am also a non-Christian, but because I view Ms. Clancy’s reference in the context of myth as it relates to the human condition as a whole, I do not take offense. While I understand that universalizing Christ might offend fundamentalist sensibilities (so too might some Christians take offense to the evocation of Christ to describe the plight of a non-Christian), I do not understand how it could offend an open, empathetic mind.

MC