Easter Sunday is the most holy day in the Christian religion. It is the commemoration of the day Jesus rose from the dead three days after his sacrificial crucifixion and is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first Monday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox (Rudolph Steiner spoke about how this festival falls when the calendars of the earth, the moon and the man-made week have all realigned themselves). This year that fell on April 4th. Some Christian groups celebrate a whole slew of holidays leading up to and following Easter including Mardi Gras, Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Ascension and others. It is a busy time in the Christian church.
I wrote some last year about the various spring celebrations from all over the world that cluster around the Spring Equinox. Much of what we see in modern Easter celebrations - Easter bunnies leaving candy, hunting for dyed eggs, wearing new dresses and hats, eating lamb or ham, even the name Easter - come from pre-Christian European spring celebrations. Much like with Christmas, the expanding church in ancient and medieval Europe co-opted the local traditions and reassigned them meaning in the new religious narrative to get the cooperation of the masses. There certainly isn't any mention of Easter eggs or Christmas trees in the Bible.
This doesn't mean, however, that Easter is just a pagan celebration with some details changed. Unlike Christmas, in which I see more similarities between pagan and Christian celebration than I do differences, there is a truly different meaning behind Easter Sunday than behind pagan spring celebrations. Yes, both celebrate the re-birth of life through the divine, but Christ's re-birth means something different than Nature's re-birth does. It means salvation, and this is where things start getting sticky for me.
I chose to really immerse myself in Easter celebrations this year (well, maybe it was less conscious than all that - but I certainly was immersed in Easter). After rejecting the austerity of Lent for 39 days I participated in an interactive stations of the cross devotional on Good Friday, watched part of the Maundy Thursday Mass given by the Pope and both The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Last Temptation of Christ as well as played an angel in my Quaker Meeting's Easter Drama. All of this had the effect of allowing me time to really spend some time working with the meaning of Easter in my own life.
The story of Holy Week has been fascinating to me since I first learned about it in a college art history class. The story goes that Jesus entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before Passover and was welcomed by the citizens. They draped their robes on the ground so his donkey wouldn't walk in the mud and waved palm fronds to honor him. This is commemorated in the church calendar as Palm Sunday. Thursday of that week was Passover and Jesus met with his disciples for a Passover meal commonly called the Last Supper. This is when he told his followers to eat of his body and drink of his blood in remembrance of him and the practice of communion with bread or wafers and wine or juice was born. That night, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas Iscariot betrayed him and he was arrested. The following day, Good Friday, he was beaten and crucified fulfilling the scripture and paying the price of fallen man's sin. After three days in the tomb he rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. Ritual celebrations that replay and symbolically show the meaning of a holy story are so attractive to me that I am almost willing to overlook my theological issues with the Passion story.
After a very brief mention of Palm Sunday at Meeting on Sunday the 28th I kicked off my Holy Week "celebration" by watching part of the Holy Thursday mass on EWTN, a Catholic television channel. I can see why the reformists of the 16th century "protested" against this kind of church - so much pomp, circumstance, gold, incense and robes. Catholic ritual is such a physical expression of faith that is so different than the expression of faith I am getting comfortable with in my Quaker Meeting. It is fascinating, though, and oh so delightful to my pagan sensibilities.
There are many fascinating traditions and symbols in the Easter Triduum, or three day period between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday. The Holy Thursday mass includes the blessing of the host and then the host is kept in an "alter of repose" during Good Friday and Holy Saturday when no mass is spoken. Neither this mass nor the Good Friday service, which is not a mass end with the typical concluding words. It is not until the Easter Mass that the conclusion is spoken. In essence it is all one service that starts with the Mass of the Last Supper and doesn't conclude until Saturday night or Sunday morning with the Easter Mass. Hows that for symbolism?
On Friday I accepted the invitation in our Meeting bulletin to attend an interactive Stations of the Cross devotional at a local mega-church. I had been thinking about going to the Catholic cathedral to see their devotional but it didn't work out. Possibly, the Spirit was working to give me the best experience possible. The whole experience was rather intense - as it was intended to be. The church it took place at was so, so different than West Hills and that was at first disconcerting. The place has a coffee shop inside it! But the devotional itself took place in a small side chapel that seemed much more intimate. Like a traditional Stations of the Cross we physically moved through a set path marked with symbols of Christ's Passion from the Last Supper to his burial but this one was multi-sensory and quite physical.
The host church used the Scriptural Way of the Cross as the format and a wide variety of props to bring the process to life. They re-created the garden at Gethsemane with potted plants and a fountain, had a recording of a rooster crowing signifying Peter's denial and had real thorns and whips for us to touch. Some of the most moving pieces to me were the railroad spikes we could pound into a large stump to feel what it was like to crucify a man, mirrors to see ourselves and our family as Jesus saw us and a bowl of myrrh and aloe like that used to embalm his body. Any teacher wanting to use multiple learning styles could have taken a page out of their book - we were asked to read, write, empathize, draw, look, listen, smell and feel throughout the entire process. The devotional ended with a plate of bread and goblets of wine so that we could partake in holy communion with the sacrficed Christ (which I chose not to do.. more on that in a minute).
Easter Sunday at West Hills Friends was much, much more light hearted - as is appropriate for Easter Sunday. I played an angel in the original production of The Kingdom of God Comes At You At One Million Miles Per Second in which a number of preachers teach people the proper stance or pose to brace for impact. Finally Jesus shows up to remind folks bracing isn't the point, moving is. Any Easter service that includes very bad renditions of People Get Ready, 25 balloons and 8 bags of candy is my kind of Easter service. It was definitely a morning of joyous celebration and community.
So what did I learn from all of this Easter Stuff? Well, one thing I learned is that I have a deep appreciation for the solemnity of a real celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. It really is no laughing matter and not something to be celebrated in pastels and bunnies. Jesus of Nazareth died a terrible death. Crucifixion is a nasty thing - like many other nasty things we humans do to each other. If you believe in original sin and the need for a savior then the Resurrection of Christ is a big, big deal. It is, in fact, the deal.
Rudolph Steiner speaks of how the Christian festivals fall a few days after the Earth festivals because we need to feel the "lower" energies of the earth before we can feel the "purer" energies embodied in the human realm and the angelic realm of Christian religion. When push comes to shove I am not a Christian. I don't believe in original sin, I don't believe in a fallen creation or a fallen man. I don't believe in the need for an external savior or any sort of intermediary between myself and the divine. I am too much of a pagan universalist for that. But I see the utility in working with these ideas. Over the last few days I have wrestled with such big ideas as the need for physical props in worship of a non-physical divine presence, my own fears and hesitations in life, why people perpetrate terrible crimes against each other and how I relate with other humans. I haven't come to good answers on any of those things, but I've had some thoughts, and that's the first step.
After my very long weekend of Easter Related Thinking I am spent. I have thought deeply and felt deeply. I am tired and feel overworked. My Easter Sunday ended with a fantastic steak house dinner with my dad that left me grateful for the richness, nutrition and elegance. It also left me feeling stuffed and in need of a few days of fasting to get back on track. That's the way I feel about thinking too. I some time for assimilation and digestion, I need a fast.
*Photos are all by Walwyn on flickr.com. They are pieces of art from French churches. Thank you for your contribution.