I'm not sure how many people know this anymore, including the religiously minded - that Easter and the story of resurrection is connected to the moon cycle and the Spring equinox - or that Christmas is connected to the return of the light after the darkest day of the year (all northern hemisphere references, of course). I don't know how many people know anymore the ancient, pagan, primal roots of these chosen dates. It is one thing to note that western Christianity co-opted them. It is another to recognize the rich spiritual energy that anchors these times of the year in any case.
And the Easter bunny and all those eggs? Those are symbols of the Earth's fertility and fecundity, since, as we know from our own backyards, rabbits reproduce in abundance. Fertility was ritualized in ancient cultures in anticipation of the coming planting season, the hope for a good harvest come summer and fall.
Lent? Not a time to give up chocolate and do personal penance for whatever. That, too, is timed with the Earth's cycles. By mid-to-late February, food stocks began to run low through the winter, so it was a time to embrace scarcity, to consume less, to salvage what remained of the harvest. This was not "penance" by choice or to make up for personal sins; this was about communities scaling back their consumption and living in some want before the next planting season began.
I am old enough to remember an ancient Catholic tradition called, "Ember Days," which remained in the liturgical calendar until the reforms of the late 1960s. These occurred 4 times a year to mark the seasons, quite consciously taken from the pagan practices of ancient Rome. I found this explanation online at the Catholic Encyclopedia: "The Romans were originally given to agriculture, and their native gods belonged to the same class. At the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their deities: in June for a bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding." Ember Days were marked by partial fasting and abstinence, and, of course, prayers were redirected now to the correct God.
How in a saturated, bloated consumer culture like ours can we even begin to appreciate the roots of these great spiritual narratives, tied to moon cycles and Earth seasons. We just go to the store and buy stuff. And so we in the affluent west have lost a deep connection with the spiritual roots of our cultures, ancestors, and the planet within which we live. We are as disconnected now from the material roots of these things as are our bodies from Nature, as is our insistence that our bodies are not even subject to Nature, nor our lifestyles to the living reality of this planet and its intimately interconnected communities.
Stories are written, ancient oral traditions and fragments of texts are passed down over time, and that time shapes the versions that come down to us, the cultures that shifted meanings, the co-opting and corruption of ancient revelations and wisdom, and so most of our religions are long separated from the original emergence, the true voices of the prophets and seers, who emerged in certain times out of certain circumstances. Reading the signs of those times, or any times, is not one of our western gifts these days.
By the third century C.E., Rome, which had been trying to put down the Christian movement via savage persecution (without success, just a long list of martyrs), found another way to deal with it, a strategy that has worked remarkably well down through the centuries. The Roman Emperor Constantine stopped persecuting it. Instead, he co-opted it. He converted, and in doing so, kicked the prophetic wind right out of it. Then the Roman elites took over and a church was established, an institution that used the empire as its model of organization. And so, from the humble roots of the Man from Nazareth, a powerful institution was born, and with it bishops and cardinals and popes down through the ages, hierarchy carefully protecting the line of power via the sacraments, and creating a long tradition of accommodation with imperial powers, conquest, monarchies, capitalism, and more. (And, wow, have I just offered a simplified version of a very complex, convoluted history of Western Christianity!!! - but to make a point.)
Always there were movements to restore Christianity to its prophetic roots (St. Francis, for example, or liberation movements in Latin America), and always the power of the institutions persisted.
And so did the battle for the "real" truth of Christianity that also marks our western history, the splits, the power struggles over centuries to claim the "real" version, the one true faith, and what got lost is the essence of the story - which had/has nothing to do with these things:
Feed the hungry, free the oppressed, woe to you rich, blessed are the poor, the Good Samaritan, the chosen women to lead the communities, the end of tribalism, the denunciation of imperial rule and of religious authoritarians, and what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called "the beloved community."Here's a reflection I have shared many times over the years: I mean, I love stories, and one of the important things about them is the way the narrative flows. And a favorite of mine from the gospels is the story of Jesus and "the rich young man" (Matthew 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-31). It is beautifully rendered, actually, great story-telling. The young man asks what he must to to inherit eternal life and Jesus gives him the list, mostly based in the 10 commandments. The young man says he's done all these things, but asks what it is that he still lacks.
And then here comes the hard part because the narrative offers not just a simple statement, but a process in 3 steps: first, go sell your possessions, then give to the poor, and, after you have done those two things - "come, follow me."
Western Christian religions and institutions have leaped over a lot of things in these books (like the Beatitudes and Woes and Matthew 25), while insisting on a lot of stuff that's not in them at all (like hierarchy and exclusive sacramental powers, or the subjugation of women), but this is a big one that, as far as I can tell, is utterly ignored down through the centuries.
And, as the story goes, the young man went away sad because he had so many possessions. If we are honest and had actually read these books, we know that surrendering wealth is central to what it means to be a disciple. We know that wealth makes it hard-to-impossible to squeak through the needle's eye.
It's like King's "I Have A Dream Speech" without his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," or his fierce denunciations not only of racism and structures of segregation, but of economic injustice, the capitalist system, and his calling out the United States as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."
It's a pretty cheap rendition of the Good Friday/Easter story that is being honored in the culture these days.
Unless the seed falls in the ground and dies... That is the story of Spring, of putting our hands back in the soil again, opening the earth to receive the seeds that will become our food. The protective outer coating falls away and a little sprout appears, unseen, until it pops through the surface.
We need to remove our protective outer coating, formed and thickened over centuries, so that the truth and beauty of these stories can emerge again - not in the institutions, but in how we choose at this moment to live out our lives - in this time of the Great Unraveling, or the Great Disintegration, in this time of collapse, as the extreme unsustainability of the systems western humans created to support this destructive industrial, consumer way of life begin to come apart.
To find ways, paths, to live through these next few generations, we need to unlearn some things, relearn some things, and learn some other things for the very first time. And a crucial step in that process is returning to the Earth, the soil, the water, fire, and air that are the elements that support our lives and which we have really mucked up, damaged beyond recognition, the integrity of which is severely undermined and assaulted on a daily basis.
We need to tell the real Easter story, the real story of Spring and fertility, the meaning of "rising up," and rescue that story from the powers that absconded with it so long ago.
~ Margaret Swedish
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