Opening reading: Lament, by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank,
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten,
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine,
Life must go on
I forget just why.
Before it can be about resurrection, Easter is about death. It’s about the human experience of grief, in all its forms. It’s about loss and separation; it’s about pain and suffering. These are implicit in all the songs of resurrection.
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Lament, is an Easter poem. It’s about the death of the father and the depth of grief that makes the mother say: “Life must go on; I forget just why.”
The father’s coat can be used to make little jackets; his pants can be used to make little trousers; and the keys and pennies will be put to use…and the smell of tobacco will be a reminder of him.
So this is a poem about resurrection…how we continue to influence one another…how each of us wears things we got from those who touched us, who influenced us, who loved us.
Let’s think together about Easter–about the songs of resurrection that are being sung by a billion Christians, in dozens of languages around the world.
I wonder how it is for the people in the Southern Hemisphere, where winter is coming on, since we think of Easter as the end of winter–the coming of spring and new life.
This was a normal winter in our part of the world and by the time it was over I had enough of shoveling and enough of the cold.
I’m not complaining about the difficult winter. I watched Nanook of the North, that wonderful documentary film about the Eskimo, Nanook, filmed near the North Pole in 1922 by Robert Flaherty. Now that’s a winter!
Flaherty was originally sent on an expedition in search of iron ore in 1918. The iron wasn’t worth the effort, but the life of those living near the Arctic Circle was. So he went back in the summer of 1922 and stayed for a year, filming.
We watch Nanook build an igloo in an hour; we watch him and his family crawl naked between the bear skins to sleep in the igloo. We watch Nanook kill a 2000 pound walrus and catch a huge seal under the ice.
We learn that the lovable, smiling Nanook–a well-respected hunter, a loving husband and father–died of starvation two years after the film was made. Life is hard up there.
Life, for us, is about as good as it gets. We live better than the kings of old could even have imagined.
We have our share of suffering and struggle, however. To be human is to suffer…to struggle.
That’s why Easter was invented. Easter, the day of resurrection, is preceded by Maundy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper–probably a Seder meal. The name Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin mandatum, a commandment, in this case, to wash the feet of one’s friends, a humbling experience of intimacy.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13: 34
In the story Simon Peter says to Jesus: “Lord where are you going?” Jesus answers: “Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward.”
Peter says he would lay down his life for Jesus and Jesus responds; “Truly, truly, I say to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times.”
Easter is preceded by Maundy Thursday–the washing of the feet; the Last Supper; then the betrayal, the arrest, the brief trial and the crucifixion: Good Friday.
One of Carlyn’s friends told her about Good Friday, since Carlyn, too, had the day off from school and wondered why.
When she heard that this was the day that Jesus died on the cross she said, “Good Friday? Why good, if your god dies on the cross, what’s good about that?”
I tried to explain the idea of vicarious atonement–that they believe Jesus died for their sins, and by doing that he guaranteed eternal life to the believers. She didn’t get it, and it was clear that she didn’t want to pursue it.
The Last Supper, the washing of the feet, the betrayal, trial and crucifixion is followed by Easter–the resurrection, and the songs of rejoicing that followed.
Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. It’s a Northern Hemisphere holiday.
The word Easter is from Estre, an ancient goddess of the dawn–a celebration of Nature and our life in It. The sun comes up in the East. Spring follows winter. For thousands of years songs of resurrection have been sung to celebrate the spring season.
In ancient Rome Spring was the start of the new year. The ancient Romans adopted the fertility god Attis, from Greek mythology; Attis is the goddess of nature.
To honor Attis, a tree was cut down, a tree which represented this god. The tree was wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in a holy sepulcher in the temple. Then, on Black Friday, the priests would cut themselves with knives as they danced to show that they sympathized with Cybele, (sib-a-ly) Attis’ grandmother, in her grief.
Two days after Black Friday, a priest opened the tomb at dawn, revealing that the tomb was empty and the priest would announce that Attis had returned to life, resurrected from the dead.
The day on which the tomb was opened was called Hilaria, or the Day of Joy, and songs of resurrection were sung.
Easter is the Christian version of the age-old story of birth, death and resurrection: Nature. It took three hundred years for the story to evolve in what was to become Christian theology. Central to the story, of course, is the miraculous birth, life and death of Jesus–the resurrected god.
The story says that Jesus spent two days in the tomb, from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning. When they came to the tomb they saw that the stone was rolled away–Jesus had miraculously risen from the dead.
It was at the Council of Nicea, in 325, that the first creed naming Jesus as the resurrected god was formulated. The theme of death and resurrection predated the new religion by at least 6,000 years, with stories of several gods who died and were resurrected. Indeed, it was in the region of what is now Turkey that the Council of Nicea took place and the old resurrected god was replaced by the new.
For all these years, in so many ways, our ancestors have been singing songs of resurrection to welcome the spring.
There are several layers to these songs of resurrection. On the most basic level is the return of Spring–the resurrection of Nature. Naturalism is the doctrine that all religious truths are derived from nature and natural causes and not from revelation.
In Egypt the words, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” had been chanted about Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead who was resurrected every year. Osiris personified the self-renewing vitality and fertility of nature.
We celebrate the spring with Passover and Easter festivals, to the extent that we feel the deeper truths in the stories and songs of resurrection.
We know, of course, that all the religions of the world have come from us–from our forebears, from human beings like Nanook of the North who lived close to the earth and to whom food was a god; and from human beings like Confucius, who saw the practical and ethical as religious; and from Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who revealed a way through suffering toward enlightenment; and from Mohammed, who taught that there is truth is all religions; and from Paul who is credited with the invention of Christianity, whose central teaching is forgiveness.
We hold on to the spring festivals, Passover and Easter, because we know, on the deepest level, that they contain the essential truth about what it means to be born, to live and struggle, and to die.
We hold on to them, and try to understand and appreciate the holidays, holy days and festivals of all the religions of the world, because they all come from a place deep within the human psyche, deep within the human heart; a place where the intellect meets the emotions, where insight meets information, where intuition knows something that the mind or brain by itself cannot comprehend.
We hold on to the stories of birth, life, death and resurrection because they tell the story of each one of us, and they connect us to one another as members of the human family.
If we look closely at the various religions we can see how they weave into a pattern, connecting with and influencing one another.
Christianity is a retelling of the Jewish story, which is the story of what it means to be human: to find oneself plunked down in the world like Adam and Eve, and evicted from the Garden of Innocence by asking certain questions; and then having to struggle to survive.
In the Passover story a lamb was sacrificed and his blood put on the door posts of the chosen people so that the angel of death would ‘pass over’ that house. In the Easter story, Jesus is portrayed as the sacrificial lamb, the lamb of God, sacrificed so that the angel of death will ‘pass over’ the believers who will be rewarded with eternal life.
It’s interesting to note that in Hinduism the ultimate reward is to get off of the eternal wheel of life; the punishment for failure in this life is to be born again and again, until you get it right.
What about us? What about Unitarian Universalists? Where are we, now? What do we believe? What do we think about Passover, Easter and the miracle stories? Do these stories help us in our quest for what it means to be a good person?
At the heart of the all is this thing we call ‘moral discernment,’ the ability to know right from wrong, and the urge to do what is right.
We share the fear that we, as a nation, are losing our sense of moral discernment. Not that we are the only nation struggling with this issue–it’s a universal human problem.
Recently we’ve listened to the discussion about a tax cut, the vast majority of which would benefit those who need it the least, and we justify it by saying that they deserve to keep more of their own money. There’s no talk of the fact that we are all using this country and have a responsibility to be caretakers of it during our temporary stay; there’s no talk of the fact that we do not deserve anything beyond that which we need to sustain life; there’s little talk of the huge debt we have accumulated and should be paid before suggesting we have a so-called surplus.
We live in an age of entitlement, when, truth be told, the most wealthy often pay the least tax and feel most entitled; even as some who refuse to work suffer from the same sense of entitlement; the two ends of the spectrum meet when you pull that line into a circle.
Some politicians won’t talk about a ‘tax cut.’ They refer to it in euphemistic terms that take the sting off the idea of the greed that motivates it to begin with.
We hear people talk about our country as a religious nation even while we are losing our moral discernment. Our politicians appeal to the most base instincts, our most crass concerns, to hoard, to accumulate for the sake of it, and at the same time to gorge ourselves while so many millions of children go hungry, live in substandard housing filled with rodents and cockroaches, lack of adequate heating and plumbing–while so many children lack decent schools and educators.
We are more likely to hear concern about a child who is having a hard time getting into Harvard, Brown or Smith than concern about children going to bed hungry or walking to school in fear of their lives because of the guns and violence that has infected the cities and now has spread to the heretofore safe suburbs.
We hear about budget surpluses in terms of trillions of dollars while working families are denied health care, and working families in low-paying jobs can’t make ends meet.
The Passover-Easter message is a call to compassion, but real compassion begins with understanding. Compassion without understanding is merely sentimentalism. It lacks depth.
The central message in the Jewish-Christian religion is the very clear message of compassion, and it requires our thoughtful consideration so that we can reach a deeper level of understanding.
The central ingredient in every religion is the same: it is a message of compassion; of care and concern for our children, for our brothers and sisters, for our mothers and grandmothers, for our fathers and grandfathers.
For most Christians this is summed up in the religion of Jesus. He preached a religion of compassion. His life is used as a model of service, of forgiveness, and of love in all its forms.
Willa Cather summarized it: “Where there is great love, there are always miracles. Miracles rest not so much upon faces or voices. Or healing power coming to us from afar off, but in our perceptions being made finer so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”
May the spirit that was in Jesus be in us; may the courage and determination that was in Moses be in us; may the compassion in the Buddha be in us; may the best we can find in all the people who loved us come to life in us. That is the miracle of a kind of resurrection we know to be real and true: that they continue to live in us; that we wear trousers cut from their pants, jackets made from their coats; that we carry pennies with tobacco smell from their pockets.
To be a religious person in our day and age, in this time and place, has little or nothing to do with any particular theological beliefs; it has to do with faith, with confidence, with trust in our ability as individuals and as people working together to make a difference for the better.
We can make a difference. We can work together to end the racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and classism that permeates our culture; and we can work together to build a nation and a world characterized by justice, equity and compassion; a nation of, by and for all the people, not only those who have the money and power which allows them to have influence and to buy pardons, but all the people, all the children, all the elderly, all the people.
This is the meaning of the resurrection story: to rise from the dead by returning to life after suffering the tragic loss of loved ones, and to keep them alive by wearing clothes cut from things they wore–things they said and did, and influenced us. That’s why the resurrection story is our story, because it is the human story.
May the spirit of resurrection and renewal be with you now, and in all the days ahead.
So may it be, and amen.