The Easter story is central to Christianity. Some Christians believe the story in a literal sense; some see the story as symbolic – a combination of mythology, theology, history and hope.
In an informal conversation with some clergy colleagues this week, one of the Christian ministers asked a Christian colleague, “What would you say to a person in your congregation who asks you if you believe that the Easter story – the resurrection – really happened?”
“I’m glad no one has ever come right out and asked! But I’d have to explain what it means to me, and it’s certainly not literal.”
Then they turned to me and said, “You don’t have that problem.”
I said, “No, there isn’t anyone in my congregation who thinks it really happened, but hopefully they all realize that it is happening.”
Let’s review the story. The Biblical version says that Jesus was betrayed by a follower and friend, Judas – he betrayed him with a kiss, and was paid 30 pieces of silver. The Romans put Jesus on trial, convicted him and he was crucified and he died on the cross, was put in a tomb with a big stone at the entrance, and on the third day they found that the stone had been rolled away and that Jesus had risen from the dead.
A more accurate telling of the Biblical story would require looking at each of the four gospels as well as the writings of Paul, since each of them has a different version – but the bottom line for each is that Jesus rose from the dead, in bodily form, and after forty days he ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, his father.
The word Easter is from comes from Estre, goddess of spring, or goddess of the dawn: ‘to shine, especially said of the dawn,’ thus the popularity of Easter sunrise services.
The Jewish tradition of Passover coincides with the Christian story of Easter. In the Passover story, God liberates the Israelites from Egyptian domination by sending the angel of death to kill the first born son in each household, but God instructs the angel of death to ‘pass over’ the houses that are marked with the blood of a sacrificial lamb.
In the Christian story, Jesus becomes the Pascal Lamb, the lamb of God, who is sacrificed so that the believers will not die, but have everlasting life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
The Christian story is rooted in the Hebrew Scripture, and both share more ancient stories – they mythologies that have evolved over the span of human history to try to explain what it’s like to be a person, to be born, to live a life of whatever length, and to die.
Ancient stories from the Egyptians, Greeks and Phoenicians tell the story of a firebird, the Phoenix, with a tail of beautiful gold and scarlet plumage, who lives for 500 years (some versions say a thousand years) and then builds a nest of myrrh twigs that then ignite and both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes. From those ashes a new Phoenix arises, reborn, destined to live as long as its old self.
In some versions of the phoenix story the bird embalms the ashes of its old self in an egg made of myrrh and deposits it in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis, Sun City. If the bird is hurt or wounded it regenerates, thus being immortal or invincible. It is also said that it can heal a person with a tear from its eyes and make them temporarily immune to death.
I’m told that there’s an incident in Harry Potter where the Phoenix heals Harry with a tear.
The phoenix is a symbol of divinity; in India it became a symbol of reincarnation – the ongoing process of the soul’s continual rebirth in another body.
Catholic art uses the phoenix as a symbol of Christ – the bird who rose from the ashes, and the man who rose from the dead; symbols of immortality, of life after death.
Like Christ, the Messiah, the phoenix is ‘one of a kind.’ There is no other.
The Easter story, with its roots in the Passover story told in Hebrew Scripture – is a way of acknowledging our mortality, on the one hand, and of offering hope for an ongoing or eternal existence.
The Easter and Passover stories are also about suffering – the acknowledgement that every person suffers, or, as my dear Catholic grandmother would say, “We all have our cross to bear.”
There’s a walkway in Jerusalem called the Via Dolorosa, or the ‘Way of Suffering,’ which is said to be the route that Jesus carried his own cross to be crucified on Calvary.
A verse to a hymn says, “Down the Via Dolorosa called the ‘Way of Suffering.’ Like a lamb came the Messiah, Christ the King. But he chose to walk that road out of his love for you and me. Down the Via Dolorosa all the way to Calvary.”
Some Christian traditions depict places along that road of suffering; a Catholic devotional which has fourteen ‘stations of the cross.’ The worshiper stops at each of those stations and contemplates its meaning as an act of prayer or devotion.
The stations are usually a series of fourteen pictures, often in stained glass, or they may be portrayed in sculptures – I’m sure you’ve seen them. The fourteen stations begin with Jesus being condemned to death. In the fourteen depictions:
- Jesus is condemned to death
- Jesus is given his cross
- Jesus falls the first time
- Jesus meets His Mother
- Simon of Cyrene carries the cross
- Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
- Jesus falls the second time
- Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem
- Jesus falls the third time
- Jesus is stripped of His garments
- Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross
- Jesus dies on the cross
- Jesus’ body is removed from the cross
- Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense.
Although not traditionally part of the Stations, the Resurrection of Jesus is sometimes included as a fifteenth station.
I never paid much attention to the stations, though I have had occasion to walk the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, and I have walked the stations in Catholic churches.
One day, when I was in my 30’s and going through a particularly difficult time, personally, I attended a Unitarian ministers’ retreat, held Espousal, a Catholic retreat center near Boston. During a break in the program I took a walk outside and sat on a bench and realized that the area where I was sitting was one of the stops along the Stations of the Cross.
The Stations are numbered, so I went to the first one and started to walk and look at each, when it suddenly occurred to me that the fourteen stations of the cross depict not only the way Jesus walked on his way to Calvary, but the stations represent places along everyone’s life journey.
There are times when we feel falsely accused, or simply misunderstood, depicted in the first station when Jesus is accused and condemned by the Romans.
As the second Station indicates, we take up a cross and carry it in life, metaphorically, of course, and sometimes we fall down under its weight, and we get some help, so we can continue, and we fall down again, from time to time.
We ‘get nailed.’ It happens along the road of life, from birth to our eventual death. Death comes to every mortal, and we’re all mortal.
We Unitarian types like to compare Easter to the Spring, but the Spring season of renewal is preceded by a winter of despair.
That’s why Miller Williams little poem hits home:
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
I think of the Easter and Passover story as poetry with a profoundly human message – it’s about us; it’s about birth and death, summarized so clearly by e e cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazingday:
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,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Someone sent me some things that children said when they were asked to describe what love is. (I didn’t do a ‘search’ to see if the children and ages are ‘real’ or ‘imaginary.’ It doesn’t matter, the stories work!)
Rebecca, age 8, said, ‘When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.’
Billy, age 4 said, ‘When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.’
Karl – age 5 ‘Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other.’
Danny – age 7 ‘Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK.’
Bobby – age 7 ‘Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.’
Tommy – age 6 ‘Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well.’
Cindy – age 8 ‘During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. I wasn’t scared anymore.’
Mary Ann – age 4 ‘Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day.’
Lauren – age 4 ‘I know my older sister loves me because she gives me all her old clothes and has to go out and buy new ones.’
And the final one was a four year old child whose next door neighbor was an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife.
Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there.
When his Mother asked what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said,
‘Nothing, I just helped him cry’
The phoenix rising…the stations of the cross…the Passover story, the Easter story… e e cummings’ wonderful poem; it’s all there…it’s about us, so it’s our story. Happy Spring!