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[Chalice] Struggling With Easter [Chalice]

Presented Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, by Doug Muder

Listen to a recording of "Struggling With Easter"
29:53 minutes - 12.0 MB - Struggling With Easter .mp3 file.

Opening Words
(from the Easter Sermon of St. John Chrysostom)

First and last alike, receive your reward. Rich and poor, rejoice together! Conscientious and lazy, celebrate the day! You who have kept the fast, and you who have not, rejoice, this day, for the table is bountifully spread! Feast royally, for the calf is fatted. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the banquet of faith. Enjoy the bounty of the Lord's goodness! Let no one grieve being poor, for the universal reign has been revealed. Let no one lament persistent failings, for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free.

Meditation (e. e. cummings)

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
. . .

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


1. The story of Spring. (adapted from the Homeric Hymns)

[After Persephone was taken by force to live with Hades in the Underworld] Demeter sat apart from the other gods, wasting with yearning for her daughter.

Then she caused a most dreadful and cruel year for mankind: the ground would not make the seed sprout, for Demeter kept it hid. In the fields the oxen drew many a plough in vain, and much barley was cast upon the land without avail. So she would have destroyed the whole race of man with famine and robbed the gods of their gifts and sacrifices, had not Zeus marked this in his heart.

So he sent Hermes to the Underwold, so that his words might win over Hades, and he might lead Persephone from the misty gloom to the light, that her mother might see her and cease from her anger. When Hermes brought her to the place where Demeter was staying, Zeus promised to give Demeter what rights she should choose among the gods and agreed that her daughter should go down for the third part of the year to darkness and gloom, but for the two parts should live with her mother.

And Demeter did not refuse but straightway made fruit to spring up from the rich lands, so that the whole wide earth was laden with leaves and flowers.

2. The story of Passover. (from Exodus)

Now the Lord had said to Moses: "I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. After that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely. . .

"About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh to the firstborn son of the slave, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt -- worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. "But among the Israelites not a dog will bark."

[and he gave Moses and Aaron these instructions for the Israelites]

". . . Choose year-old males without defect from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs.

"That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. ... This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord's Passover.

"On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. ... The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt."

3. The story of Easter. (from The Gospel According to Luke)

[A man named Joseph went to Pilate and] asked for Jesus' body. He took it down [from the cross], wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid.

It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead He is not here; he has risen!"

Struggling With Easter

The first thing you need to understand about this talk is that it's all a mistake. For months I've intended to come back to Quincy some time during the spring to get my father's house ready to sell. But that didn't have to be any time in particular, so I waited to see how the rest of my schedule shook out. When I got an invitation to talk in Michigan last weekend, it made sense to go from my home in New England to Michigan, and from Michigan to Quincy. So I volunteered to do the service at the end of March. The committee that organizes Sunday services here accepted my offer, and in their email chatter afterwords, somebody said, "It'll be interesting to see what Doug does with Easter." Easter. March 31 is Easter. Who knew?

Actually I'm an unlikely person to lead an Easter service. First, because I've never done one before, and second, because I don't even like Unitarian Easter services. I used go to them and complain afterwards, but eventually I gave up and decided to stay home. So I haven't even been to an Easter service for quite a while now.

My problem with Easter services, at least at my home church, and the church before that, is that the content never lives up to the trappings. I don't know how you usually do it here, but many of the New England Unitarian churches have been celebrating Easter since colonial times, when their theology was much closer to Christian orthodoxy. So there's a long tradition of big-production Easter services where everyone has a role. The pews are packed. The senior minister preaches, the assistant does the reading. The choir sings and the children's choir, and the whole thing can take an hour and a half or more. It can be quite a spectacle. But what are we celebrating?

Well, Jesus is risen! That's worth celebrating. Unless you think maybe he isn't and that was all just a metaphor or something.

But whether it's historical or not, the Resurrection symbolizes that our debt to God is paid and He's not angry with us any more, so we will get to go to Heaven when we die. That's worth celebrating. Except that the Universalists have been teaching for 200 years that God was never really angry with humanity and always intended for everybody to make it to Heaven.

And Unitarian Humanists have been teaching for almost 100 years that the whole what-happens-when-you-die question is unanswerable, so we should focus instead on the life we are living here and now.

Even Unitarian Christians have a wide variety of views on the meaning of Jesus' life and death, and while some of their interpretations of the resurrection are very beautiful, they're sufficiently elaborate that you almost have to be a theologian to appreciate them.

Almost by default, then, we end up talking about the spring flowers. At least we can all agree that they're real and we like them. But somehow that always leaves me feeling like I'm at the graduation party of kid who came up one credit short. He won't actually graduate this week, but the invitations went out already and the tent is rented and the band won't give back the deposit, so what the hell? It's a party.

Anyway, that's my history with Easter. I've tried complaining about it, and I've tried ignoring it, and this year I ignored Easter so well that I wound up responsible for doing something constructive with it.

Well OK then. I accept the challenge. Where to start? When a detective gets stuck, he goes back to the scene of the crime. I go back to the earliest history I can imagine.

Our two biggest holidays, Christmas and Easter, evolved from similar origins. Every year, ancient peoples in the temperate zones observed two regularly occurring miracles: the sun turning around on winter solstice and the plant world coming back to life in spring. These days we don't usually call those things miracles, but that's because we don't see them the way our ancestors did. Imagine knowing nothing about the solar system or the tipping of the Earth's axis. All you know is what you see: At midsummer, the Sun's path through the sky went almost straight overhead; but all through the Fall it has been sinking closer and closer towards the horizon. And every year you'd have to wonder: Why shouldn't it just keep sinking until the Sun vanishes completely never to be seen again? But it doesn't. Every year on the winter solstice, the Sun's path across the sky turns around and starts coming back to us. Imagine what a huge relief that must have been, no matter how many times you had seen it or how accurately your tribe's star-gazers could predict when it would happen. All Fall, you could hope that the old pattern would come through again and the Sun would turn around, but you couldn't really be sure until you saw it.

That has given the winter holidays two themes they've kept ever since:

Christianity built Christmas on those two themes: The hope for a savior is fulfilled, and what turns around is the relationship between God and humanity. Christmas is the promise of heaven the way that winter solstice is the promise of summer. It may not arrive for some while, but now things are moving in the right direction.

But here's an interesting thing: Christian Christmas wasn't the end of winter-holiday evolution. Starting with Dickens, the secular culture began to build its own Christmas. It adapted the folk customs of the Christian holiday just as the Christians had adapted the customs of the Roman Saturnalia. But it wrote a new secular mythology that expressed the ancient themes in a new way. Now what turns around are individual lives, like Scrooge, like the Grinch. No matter how hard-hearted you may have become, no matter how close you may be to dumping all your human attachments off the top of Mount Crumpit, on Christmas you can turn around. You can come back to the community, like the Sun does. In the secular Christmas mythology, the hope that can be fulfilled is the hope for human relationships. If you have fallen out with your loved ones, if you have been hoping that someday your sister, your father, your daughter or your friend can come back into your life, the secular mythology tells you that on Christmas your hope can be fulfilled.

Every year when those stories are told and retold, we are reminded that the Cratchits need to keep inviting Scrooge no matter how often he has said no, and the Whos of Whoville need to keep singing. Because no matter how hard-hearted and how distant the Scrooges and Grinches of this world may be, the community can still hope to call them back. Because sometimes, and especially on Christmas, hope is fulfilled and things turn around. And every year we have to ask ourselves if maybe we have become Scrooge. Maybe we are the ones who have lost our way, who need to turn around and come back to the community.

So the secular culture has done an interesting thing with Christmas. Using many of the trappings of the Christian holiday, and without contradicting anything in the Christian story of Jesus' birth at Bethlehem, the new stories express the age-old themes of the season in a different way. And as a result you can have a very meaningful Christmas without practicing any particular religion or holding any particular theology.

I wonder if that could work for Easter.

Ancient Themes of Spring. The miracle of Spring is a little different from the miracle of the winter solstice. It's not a specific moment that you can predict and pinpoint. Over a period of weeks, the various summer birds return. The plants sprout and the trees bud at different times.

But to our ancestors the whole process was surrounded by the same aura of mystery and wonder and fear. Why does it happen? And what if this year it doesn't? Our ancestors could't explain why seeds sprout. And if some year they just sat in the ground like the little colored rocks they resemble, what could anybody do about it? You can't really understand the ancient meaning of Spring until you appreciate the ancient experience of Winter. For us, Winter is an inconvenience. Cars are hard to start; you have to wear a coat when you go outside; you might have to shovel the driveway if it snows. Maybe you get so annoyed with it that you fly someplace warm for a week or two. But light comes on when you flick the switch, and heat when you turn the dial. You can still find bananas at the supermarkets and roses at the florist.

Ancient Winter wasn't like that. Persephone was in Hades; good luck surviving until she got back. All Winter you watched the harvest dwindle and wondered how long it would last. Diseases spread as people huddled around fires, and it was hard to get well when you couldn't stay warm. Step through the ice or take a wrong turn in the forest, and even young and healthy people might not get back to the fire in time to save themselves. Everyone who made it to Spring had run that gauntlet and survived those dark times. And so, the spring holiday celebrated much more than just the pretty flowers. The ancient themes of Spring are:

And survivor guilt. Let's not forget that. Because Winter didn't just take the weak and the old; sometimes when the clans gathered to celebrate the arrival of Spring, those who had been fit and healthy in the Fall were missing too. So while you were happy to be alive, and you were proud of the ways you'd helped others survive and grateful for how they'd helped you, you also had to wonder: "Why me? Why am I alive when other people, maybe better people, aren't?"

And so the joyous celebrations of spring also have a dark side. The Exodus is not a march of triumph, it is an escape from the darkness of slavery. You eat that first passover meal with your shoes on their feet and your coat on your back. There's no time to wait for the yeast to raise the dough; make your bread without it. Keep your walking stick handy. Because we're running away, and as soon as the Angel of Death has passed over, we've got to be ready to go.

Similarly, the Christian Easter story is not just the triumph of the Resurrection. That's just the ending. The empty tomb means little without the blood-sweating anxiety of Gethsemane or the torture of Golgotha. And there are hints of survivor guilt in both stories. Whether it's the son of Pharaoh or the son of God, somebody more important than you is dead, and his death is part of why you get to go on.

That heft and seriousness is a big part of what I find missing in so many Unitarian Easter services. A spring holiday can't just be flowers and bunnies and brightly colored eggs. The stone that the angel rolls away from Jesus' tomb has to be heavy.

And now we get to the biggest difference between Easter and Christmas: Easter doesn't have a meaningful secular mythology. Easter doesn't have a Scrooge or a Grinch. There's no Charlie Brown's Easter, no It's a Wonderful Life or White Christmas or Miracle on 34th Street. No newspaper editor explains that "Yes, Virginia, there is an Easter Bunny." What would that even mean? The bunnies, the bonnets, the eggs, and the baskets full of fake grass and candy -- they're fun in a childish way, but that's as far as it goes.

Outside of religion, there is no "true meaning of Easter" you can suddenly understand. Secular Easter doesn't have any moral content. It doesn't challenge you to change your life. Non-religious myth-makers have more or less ignored Easter, as if the ancient miracle of Spring had nothing to teach us beyond the sectarian lessons of the Exodus or the Resurrection.

I don't think that's true.

I don't see any reason why there couldn't be a secular Easter story that used the folk traditions of Easter and did not deny or contradict the resurrection story, but expressed the age-old themes of escape from darkness and victory over death in its own way. I even think I know how such a story might go.

Picture a woman who had a good life some while ago, but that life is over now. There were people in her old life, but they are gone now and they aren't coming back. In her old life she had an identity, with roles and responsibilities, and a sense of mission and purpose; but all that has dried up and blown away. Since then, she has been running a gauntlet of survival. She has seen another woman, another survivor, someone she admired, give up. And now she wonders: Maybe I should give up too. Maybe I'm just being stubborn, clinging to my small spark of life like a seed in the frozen ground.

The story would center on how, one year, Spring got to her: the lengthening days, the sprouting plants -- and yes, Easter, with all its traditions both secular and religious. The plot would build through Lent and Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and all come together Easter morning with the realization that it was time to leave the darkness to make a new life and declare her own small victory over death.

Imagine if a story like that caught on, like the story of Scrooge. Every year when you heard it, and its imitators and all the other secular stories that developed the same theme, you'd be reminded to watch for people who might be recommitting to life in this season of new beginnings, to see what roles in their new lives are still open and think about whether you might fill one. Once a year you'd be invited to consider whether you might be the one who has been dead too long and needs to live again. Maybe it is time to leave the darkness and be done mourning for the life you used to have. Maybe it is time to stop waiting for that perfect opportunity that never comes. Every year you would be invited to consider that it might be time for you to sprout where you are planted, to stop looking at the people around you as some random collection of survivors or the inhabitants of some island where you happened to wash up, and ask if these people might be the community you need. Maybe the thing you find yourself doing, what you've been describing as something you just blundered into, is what you're supposed to be doing. If you stopped holding back from it, it could be a new mission, a new purpose, a new identity, a new life. Maybe this year you are the person who can and who should and who needs to declare victory over death.

That secular holiday of Easter could co-exist with Christian Easter, and with Passover, and with any other spring holiday built on the old themes. It would be meaningful, but its meaning would not depend on practicing any particular religion or holding any particular theology.

That is the Easter I want to celebrate.

At long last, it is Spring. All around us, the ancient miracle is happening once again. The season of Death is behind us, and new life is springing up. You have an invitation to join that renewal, but the Earth will not wait for you. So don't delay until the yeast has raised the dough; make your bread without it. Have your walking stick ready; it's time to go. The stone has been rolled away and the path to the light is open.

Are you coming?

It's too late to wish you could be replanted somewhere else, because it's time to sprout.

Here. Now.

It's Easter.

Closing Words (W. E. B. DuBois)

Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done.

©2013 Doug Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Doug 2013. Struggling With Easter, /talks/20130331.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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