Monday, April 17, 2006

Defending "Wow, Things Are Growing Again Day"

Earth feels the season’s joyance,
From mountain range to sea
The tides of life are flowing
Fresh, manifold and free.
In valley and on upland,
By forest pathways dim,
All nature lifts in chorus
The resurrection hymn.

[Frederick L. Hosmer, 1903]

On their blogs, PeaceBang and Ethan lament the tendency in many UU congregations to water down the vigor of the traditional Christian Easter celebration into something so banal that PeaceBang derides it as “Wow, Things Are Growing Again Day”. They’re right, of course; we UUs seem to have a particular gift for taking spiritual insights of timelessness and power and regurgitating them in ways that can be astonishingly ephemeral and glib.

And yet.

Is it so wrong to conflate Easter with springtime? I say, emphatically, no.

At its core, Christianity is a syncretic and eclectic religion. Even the divinity of Jesus that most Christians (if not most Unitarians) affirm, as declared in the Gospel of John which calls him the "Word of God", is a pagan idea of divinity, not one that springs from Abrahamic monotheism.

The "very big" picture is that vernal celebrations in all cultures have strong similarities. Even the date of the Jewish Pesach or Pascha (Passover) is determined by the spring equinox. Both it and the Christian Pascha (Easter) that derives from it share with all other vernal celebrations a theme of renewal, rebirth, deliverance from darkness, triumph over death and bondage, a theme primally connected to the regenerative aspect of the vernal cycle. If in ancient times cultures collided and influenced one another's celebrations, if the Christian festival of resurrection took on some of the trappings of other cultures' spring festivals, those influences were complementary, not destructive, because the underlying meanings were so similar.

Earth her joy confesses, clothing her for spring,
All fresh gifts returned with her returning King:
Bloom in every meadow, leaves on every bough,
Speak His sorrow ended, hail His triumph now.
“Welcome, happy morning!”
Age to age shall say.

Months in due succession, days of lengthening light,
Hours and passing moments praise Thee in their flight.
Brightness of the morning, sky and fields and sea,
Vanquisher of darkness, bring their praise to Thee.
“Welcome, happy morning!”
Age to age shall say.

[Venantius Fortunatus, c. 590; tr. John Ellerton, 1868]

And such mingling did happen. We shouldn't pretend it didn't. As Christianity grew and spread it absorbed religious apprehensions from other cultures that seemed consistent with its teaching of the universality of Christ's teaching and the omnipresence of the Holy Spirit. The Easter Bunny and Easter eggs are obscure vestiges of pagan vernal fertility symbols, even if our culture no longer really remembers what they originally meant. But they're not evil, and they don't corrupt Easter. No Christian ever went to Hell for an Easter egg hunt.

Among many of the early Indo-European peoples, there is a fertility or spring goddess with a name rooted in "str" or some variant: Ishtar, Astarte, Asherah, Ashteroth, Aphrodite, etc. Of particular relevance to us English speakers, the Venerable Bede records that the Saxon tribes called their spring month “Eostre”, and had a corresponding goddess with a similar name. Although we have no other knowledge of her or how she may have been worshipped, we now call the Christian festival of resurrection by her name, and not a word derived from “Pesach” as nearly all other Christians do.

I think such syncretism, both within historical Christianity and today, is a very good thing. The history of Unitarianism and Unversalism is not only a history of growing discomfort with our Christian origins (a discomfort which, some today argue, needs to be reconciled). It’s also a history of growing awareness that the Holy Spirit did not cease to speak to humanity when the canon of Christian scripture was closed, and that no one culture or religious tradition, not even the one from which we spring, enjoys a single, exclusive, correct apprehension of the Holy. Our denominational predecessors, for example, were instrumental in organizing the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, in an effort to expand interfaith dialogue and discover the common truths apprehended in all religious traditions.

Especially in a time when UUism is beginning to place a greater emphasis on nature reverence and our dependence upon natural cycles and systems for our physical as well as spiritual survival, I don't see any reason to deny, minimize or condemn either the pagan or the naturalistic overtones of the holiday. Rather, we should embrace them for the common apprehensions with the Christian meaning of Easter that they legitimately express. Common spirtual apprehensions of differing cultures and religious traditions can be celebrated in common without corrupting their authentic meaning within their own traditions. The only contemptible aspect of how we try to do it is our seeming unwillingness to express any of this in language of appropriate depth, depth that is sufficient to connect the regenerative cycles of nature with our deeper spiritual needs, rather than only the superficial joy that the flowers are coming up and the grass is green.

When the darkness falls around you
And the north wind comes to blow,
And you hear him call you name out
As he walks the brittle snow:
That old wind don't mean you trouble,
He don't care or even know,
He's just walking down the darkness
Toward the morning.

It's a pity we don't know
What the little flowers know.
They can't face the cold November,
They can't take the wind and snow:
They put their glories all behind them,
Bow their heads and let it go,
But you know they'll be there shining
In the springtime.

Oh, my Joanie, don't you know
That the stars are swinging slow,
And the seas are rolling easy
As they did so long ago?
If I had a thing to give you,
I would tell you one more time
That the world is always turning
Toward the morning.

[© Gordon Bok, 1975]


At April 17, 2006 at 11:22:00 AM EDT, Blogger PeaceBang said...

Well, of course I agree with you, with one clarification: it's not including the rebirth of Earth theme in an Easter service that I object to. I wouldn't have it any other way, myself.
It's CALLING a worship service an Easter service and then assiduously avoiding any mention of Jesus -- or even worse, simply using the Easter story as a kind of whipping boy for our hyper-rationalists, that I object to.

Also banality in general, and those horrid, rambling, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink prayers and meditations that attempt to replace mystery with verbiage: a speciality of UUs.

At April 26, 2006 at 1:42:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Rusty said...

Just a tangental point - I'm in Australia where it is Autumn. The days are getting longer and darker and everything is dying. A "Wow, Things are Growing Again Day" should properly be celebrated in mid September.


At May 28, 2006 at 4:02:00 AM EDT, Blogger Kim said...

I was raised Unitarian and then UU. I do not miss the Christian Easter, because I never had it. I remember those flower communions every Easter -- and I loved them, it was my favorite service -- and it always felt very spiritual to me. Now it's mostly nostalgic, but I still love it. It still has some spiritual content.
To some degree, you get out of it what you put into it. If you spend your effort complaining that it's too shallow or glib, of course you will miss the magic in it.
You miss what you had when you were a kid, not because it was good, but because you had it when you were a kid.
Remember Buddha's flower sermon? How could we do better than that? I think that's what I saw in the flower communion when I was a kid.


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