Paula Northwood April 21, 2019, Easter
Scripture Luke 24:1–12
I wasn’t forced to do it. No one taunted me. No one dared me to do it. But here I stood, weak-kneed, breathless at the top of a cliff. The lake shimmered some 40 feet below. I looked out to the island across the channel, and it appeared that I was higher than the trees. Did I mention I am afraid of heights? Or that I am a weak swimmer, at best?
What was I thinking? Part of the reason I agreed to jump was that it didn’t look that high from down below: I thought it would be easy. I might have wanted to impress my new girlfriend. Andrea had scrambled up and taken a flying leap. She now waited in a canoe below shouting encouraging words. I started shaking, paralyzed by fear—my heart pounded, my hands and feet tingled. I was certain I going to die. And for a fleeting second, I wondered if God could get me out of this.
I’m not sure what happened . . . eventually, I jumped and found myself going deep into the lake, so deep I wondered when I would start the journey back. But I did, and I surfaced and I found that I had just a little bit more courage to face my fear. It became one of my touchstones, and I return to it when I am afraid.
We all have moments when we find ourselves in places on the edge of something unknown, painful or terrifying. We cannot see beyond the present moment. In church language or theological language, that is a Good Friday moment. And because we have and will always have Good Friday moments, we will always need the message of Easter Sunday.
I’m sure you know that the story of Easter is very ancient and pre-Christian. Our Easter rituals are based on the pagan rituals around the spring equinox as a celebration of renewed life and the change that comes with spring. This solar festival is celebrated when the length of the day and the length of the night are equal, which occurs twice a year at the spring and fall equinox. The general symbolic story of the resurrection of the sun (s-u-n) became symbolized by the Jesus, the s-o-n. This was a well-worn story in the ancient world. Throughout history, this turn in the seasons has been celebrated by various cultures that held festivals in honor of their gods and goddesses at these times of the year.
Even the word “Easter” is of tribal Saxon origin: Eastra or Ostara is the name of the goddess of spring, in whose honor sacrifices were offered in the springtime each year. Her sacred animal was the rabbit, hence the Easter bunny. And if you have wondered why we color Easter eggs, that dates to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of coloring and eating eggs during their spring festival. The egg, of course, is a symbol of fertility and new life.
When Christianity began to spread, Emperor Constantine in 325 C.E. convened a meeting called the Council of Nicaea to debate many Christian tenets, including the date of the resurrection of Christ. Since the church believed that the resurrection took place on a Sunday, the Council determined that Easter should always fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. Easter has since remained without a fixed date but proximate to the full moon, which typically coincides with the start of the Passover of the Jewish religion, Christianity’s theological parent. While there are distinct differences between the celebrations of Jewish Passover and Christian Easter, both festivals celebrate rebirth. In Christianity, it is through the resurrection of Jesus; in Jewish tradition, through the liberation of the Israelites from slavery.
If we understand that our celebration of Easter comes from pre-Christian roots, that Christians co-opted some of parts of it, does that take away from its meaning or power? I would advocate that it makes it stronger. The symbols of Easter are imbued with deep archetypal significance. For Plymouth Church, which resides in the spiritually progressive nest of Christianity, what does this mean?
If you take a quick walk around our beautiful building, you might come away with the impression that we love the pagan story as much as the Christian story. Each spring for many years, the embroidery called The Renewal of Life has graced Guild Hall. Does it portray the crucifixion of Jesus, as many churches would? Or the risen Christ and empty tomb? No. At the center, instead, is the Tree of Life. Maybe you have never thought about it, but why would the Tree of Life be a significant symbol for Easter?
The Tree of Life is a mystical tree that is well-known throughout many ancient cultures, stretching all the way back into the distant past to the oldest civilizations in the world. Different religions call it by different names, each with its own mythology. But they all have similar meanings as the source of life, spiritual or literal. The Tree of Life is widely thought to represent the Divine Creator, and it is revered as the representation of the interconnectedness of all beings.
In Norse legends, the mighty tree is called Yggdrasil, whose thick and gnarled trunk rises at the geographical center of the spiritual cosmos. The rest of that cosmos, including Nine Worlds, is arrayed around it and held together by its branches and roots, which connect the various parts of the cosmos to one another. Because of this, the well-being of the cosmos depends on the well-being of the tree. This was back when we understood we depended on nature, an idea we are going to need to come back to if we are going to save our planet. But if you look closely at our spring embroidery, you will see some of these pre-Christian symbols. One of the symbols in the Norse legend is a squirrel who runs messages between the worlds. After the service, see if you can find the squirrel in our embroidery.
For Christians, some translations of the crucifixion story say that Jesus was nailed to a tree. Some have even argued both literally and figuratively that the cross was made from the Tree of Life. The cross becomes a symbol of our transformation and hence a symbol of new life. We interpret taking up our cross as a process to make our egos more balanced. We must suffer, as Jesus did, the scourge, the stripping, the pain and the death of the ego in order to experience rebirth into a larger, more Spirit-filled life. Understanding and embracing this process, enduring it, submitting ourselves to its passion makes all things new: No pain, no gain. This new life and creativity does not come without the excruciatingly painful death of the small Self, the individual ego. So it raises this question: What needs to die in you, right now, to be reborn into this larger Spirit-led life?
I think we resonate with the tree because within our church we also have a large, colorful stained-glass Tree of Life that overlooks Jones Commons. In addition, we have two renditions of the Spirit Tree by Hazel Belvo. One tree is in the Education Wing, drawn with charcoal and tobacco juice. The other painting of the tree, in energetic earth tones, is found in the hallway to the sanctuary. I highlight these images because I think we often walk past them and judge them on their artistry rather than allow the deeper meaning to encourage or confront us.
It often takes a crisis to make us go deep, to ask the big questions about who we are, what we believe and how we want to be in the future. We are in a transition time, not just in our church but in the whole of Christianity.
Diana Butler Bass writes in her book Grounded: “The old God, the one believed in, preached, celebrated and served in conventional religious institutions, is fading from view. And a new one, one of intimate longing and infinite love, experienced and proclaimed by seers and prophets through the ages, has risen just over the horizon. It is a new spiritual day.”
Because Plymouth Church has been open to the learnings of other faiths, and uses imagery that symbolizes archetypal yearnings, and has a willingness to explore the deeper questions, we are poised to welcome this new day. We are poised to welcome this new day!
At the end of our text this morning we have the women going to the tomb and finding it empty. They are accused of spreading an idle tale. The women who attended the grave were not sure what happened. The followers of Jesus were not sure what happened. No one was sure what happened.
Unitarian minister Daniel Budd tells the story of receiving an invitation from a neighborhood newspaper to place an ad for Easter. Someone suggested that the church’s advertisement should say something like, “Join us. We’re not sure what happened.”
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like when someone appears who inspires us with new ways of living that touch our hearts and lift our spirits in anticipation.
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like when someone touches our lives profoundly, whose presence lives in our souls. We know what it’s like when death takes them from us, perhaps prematurely, and the empty place in our souls is much like an empty tomb.
We’re not sure what happened. But, we know what it’s like to realize, to have it dawn upon us, that what we have known and who we have loved live on now as a part of who we are. We know that somehow, in our hearts and souls, resurrection is real: not that of the body, but of the spirit—a spirit renewed, even reborn, in the midst our lives and our living.
When we tell any of the ancient stories of the Bible, “we’re not sure what happened,” but there are some things we know for sure. Jesus was understood to be the anointed one, the universal, cosmic Christ whose spirit dwells in all things. Christ’s spirit dwells in all things, especially the church that becomes the body of Christ to carry forth God’s love in the world. Sometimes we are joyful and full of wonder and can sing the Hallelujah chorus with gusto. Sometimes we are scared and disillusioned, standing on the edge of a cliff.
Let’s jump and trust in a God that makes all things new! Amen.
Budd’s story appears in the collection Celebrating Easter and Spring, edited by Carl Seaburg and Mark Harris (Anne Miniver Press, 2000). Parts of the paragraphs beginning “We’re not sure what happened” are adapted from this article.