Part 1: The Birth of Spirit
Have you ever used a neumonic device to help you remember something? Perhaps it was “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, to help you remember the names of the notes on lines of the musical staff. Maybe youre like me and you still have to sing the little jingle “30 days hath September…” to remember how many days in each month. Obviously, whats valuable is not the meaningless little structure we remember, but the information it holds.
In exactly the same way, myths, folktales and rituals contain information vital to culture. They contain the wisdom of countless generations, the seed from which society was grown. Unfortunately, since the ideas contained in these stories are so vast and universal, almost common sense, the tendency of a society over hundreds or thousands of years is to become attached to the outward forms and to lose the kernel of truth which was the original purpose.
Today we are awakening to a new reality. All over the world and in every major religion, Spring is a season of rebirth and regeneration. Persian cultures celebrate Noruz, an ancient New Year’s holiday, with cleansing rituals and forgiveness. This festival happens about the same time Jews are commemorating their safety from the angel of death and Christians are heralding the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. From a purely natural standpoint, the principal event of this season is the equinox, when the sun rises directly above the equator and day and night are of equal length.
Clearly, Spring is about survival, renewal, fertility, the recognition of a cycle. But, these concepts and the related stories and traditions behind them are signs, physical props of memory pointing us away from themselves on to something higher. With an illuminated perspective, we perceive a universal message of personal development. In its most sublime aspect, the Spring season is a time when we recognize that, as the saying goes, we are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a physical experience.
The earliest Christians were making just such an assertion in their story of Jesus. By condensing the ultimate nature of mankind into the drama of a single person, they were able to make something epic in its proportions into something more manageable. And, of course, memorable.
The world surrounding the early Christians was as filled with war and disease and corruption as is ours today. Even then, people saw the world at its bursting point, expecting any day for God to literally descend from the sky and put an end to the madness. What the Christians did through their storytelling had been done many times before, but it was no less revolutionary. Confronted with a world infinitely concerned with the mundane cycles of life, the earliest Christians called those around them to take their eyes from the dirt on which they stood and, instead, to look up into the heavens. Of course, gazing upon the mirror in the sky is always to look within.
In all ancient conceptions, the sun is a symbol of spirit and the moon a symbol for the body. A radical truth is contained, thus, in the idea that the moon has no light of its own, but reflects only from the sun. As the year progresses, from the autumnal equinox on, night grows progressively longer. The moon, or, symbolically, the physical body, reigns. But, as this imbalance increases, nature itself shows signs of death and decay. In the winter solstice the process stops and is reversed until finally, at the vernal equinox, March 20 this year, the sun and spirit finally takes it’s rightful place. The spiritual life is born.
Ask yourself what really rules your existence. Is it your animal nature, or the song of your soul? After all, that’s what the ancients were doing with these stories of sun and moon. That, and planting seeds.
“If I accept the fact that a god is absolute and beyond all human experience, he leaves me cold. I do not affect him, nor does he affect me. But, if I know, on the other hand, that God is a mighty activity within my own soul, at once I must concern myself with him.”
– C.G. Jung
Part 2: Symbols of Easter
“There is one glory of the sun and another glory of the moon … so also is the resurrection of the dead. Sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
1 Corinthians 15:41-44
In the first part of this article, we explored the vernal equinox as the beginning of a period when day would grow longer than night and that, in a mystical sense, this represents the triumph of spirit over body. On one level, the equinox is a practical message to agriculturally-based societies dependent on the rhythms of nature. This familiarity and utility also makes it a vehicle powerful enough to convey the most elevated and sublime of spiritual conceptions. This article will examine the images of modern Easter, their historical origins, and their part in the mystical/mythical story of birth, death and rebirth.
At its foundation, Easter is designed by and for rural folk. The imagery is immediate, culled directly from their surroundings. Spring is the time in which farmers plant seeds winter is over and the days are long enough and warm enough to bring forth life-sustaining crops (Spring break was conceived to excuse children from school so they could help their parents with the sowing). The seed became a symbol for the triumph of life over death as the means by which nature regenerates itself, life from life. This mystical dimension was also attached to eggs as the animal equivalent.
In the Middle Ages, Catholics were prohibited from eating eggs during Lent, and the uneaten chicken eggs laid during this time were decorated and saved for the Easter feast, celebrating the resurrection. German immigrants to the Pennsylvania Dutch area told their children the eggs were deposited by the “Osterhase” or Easter Bunny. Jakob Grimm testifies that a similar legend dated back to at least the 7th century in Europe. Rabbits, which had long been a symbol for fertility due to their rapid reproductive capability, may have been inserted into the story of Easter by German Protestants who wanted to emphasize the feast, not the rite of fasting. Or, perhaps it was simply placed by creative parents animated by the spirit of celebration and their own fecundity.
Easter is whats called a moveable feast, since it falls on a different day each year. The date of Jesus death was a controversial subject in the mid-second century. Most groups put the crucifixion at or near the Jewish celebration of Passover, calculated by the lunar-based Hebrew calendar. The Roman church, however, eschewed any attempt to set an exact date for Jesus death and instead found a suitable compromise that would capture the spirit of the event by calculating Easter through facets of both solar and lunar calendars. Thus, the Catholic Easter is always the first Sunday on or after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. Through this formula, Christians arrive at a time when nature reflects in itself an appropriate balance of Sun (spirit) and moon (body).
If this mystical rather than literal dating seems odd, it is important to note that none of the Catholic dates for the life of Jesus are founded in historical certainty, but all are symbolic. In 345 A.D., Pope Julian II moved Christmas from March 25 to December 25, three days after the winter solstice, to bring it in line with the much more popular, solar-based customs of Mithraism and Bacchanalia. Placed here, the birth of Christ occurs at the moment the growth of night stops and begins to reverse. In the fourth century, however, there was still a deeply-rooted pagan, or nature religion, holiday that fell in springtime, during the lunar period called Eostermonath (Eostres month), that threatened the Roman holiday marking Jesus death. While the pagans were exchanging gifts and consuming liquor, Christians were instructed to fast and give to the poor. No complete conversion of the pagans was ever effected, as evidenced by the name the Catholic celebration of Jesus resurrection bears to this day.
Anglo-Saxons called their fertility goddess, Eostre, which is most often translated as ‘dawn servant’ from the Old Teutonic aew-s, meaning illumination, especially of daybreak (their name for Venus, the morning star, shared this same origin). Related goddesses of other cultures are the Egyptian Isis, Ishtar of the Assyrians, Astarte of the Babylonians, and Tara of the Irish. The name Easter underscores the very reason why Jesus birth was celebrated in Spring before it was moved to December. The birth of Christ is not some literal event in history, but the bursting forth by day of your spiritual being.
Pagan religions celebrate natures divinity as the pinnacle and purpose of being. Monotheism takes the signs of a pagan festival and fills them with new meaning for the spirit of the individual. Christianity, uncorrupted, places transcendence within the self, not in a tribe, an institution, a messiah, or a collection of laws. Over centuries, the Christians overlaid their holidays on a framework of ancient tradition, ritual and mythology. What we receive today is a sacred calendar with layers of meaning, a building with many stories.
Simply stated, the traditional story of Easter, wherein Jesus tomb is found empty three days after his crucifixion, is a fable, a device by which we are prodded towards a revelation and understanding about our own true nature. The Easter bunny helps us understand the absurdity of literally interpreting mythic images designed to carry a spiritual message. Clinging to the literal interpretation, at best, is like believing in an egg-laying rabbit. At worst, it is like trying to bring life out of a desiccated, dead seed. This season proves every birth is a rebirth spring to life with a radical, non-commercial celebration, and find a triumph of spirit in the growing light of your days.
“Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born,
But not within thyself, thy soul will be forlorn;
The cross on Golgotha thou lookest to in vain
Unless within thyself it be set up again.”
– Angelus Silesius, 17th Century Catholic mystic