What Do We Do With Easter?

What do we do with Easter?

Rev. Fred L Hammond

Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church

4 April 2010 ©

Easter was always a holiday of great joy growing up.  There were dyed eggs, chocolates and gifts hidden, and new clothes. And of course there would be the wonderment of the Easter Bunny—the cousin of Santa Claus—who would scatter his candy everywhere.

In my childhood home of New York State, Easter would be the true herald of spring because it was only by Easter that the first tulips or daffodils would begin to bloom.  And maybe, if it was a particularly a warm spring, the forsythia at my home would begin to yellow.   Frost was still a possibility and there were times when a late spring snow storm would blanket the new blooms.

Easter was the few days of the year that my family would have dinner rather than supper.  Now in my family supper was served around 7 PM and dinner was served around 4:30PM.  Dinner on Easter was always fancier than supper.  We could have Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks for supper but dinner might include a roast of some sort.

The church would be filled with Easter lilies given in memory of loved ones.  These would sometimes be read aloud as part of a litany of remembrance.  I would always scan the insert to see if my grandmother’s and later my grandfather’s name would be listed.

When I was a teen, I was asked to play the part of Jesus for the Sunday School classes for a re-enactment of the last week of Jesus’ life leading up to Easter.  On Palm Sunday, we did the triumphant entry, the turning over of the money changers tables and the crucifixion.   I was laid in a tomb which was a small unused storage space under the front porch of the church.  The entrance to this area was from the first floor of the church.  There was a rock foundation and stone floor. It looked tomb like. A bench had been placed there for me to be ‘entombed.’

Now there was a Jewish couple who had been coming to the church because they enjoyed the minister’s liberal sermons.  Their daughter was about 5 years old and began attending Sunday school.  She watched attentively as I was placed in the tomb.  The following week, Easter morning, the classes gathered around the tomb only to find linen on the bench and an angel standing there saying he is not here he is risen.  The little girl turned and saw me, no longer in the role of Jesus, and exclaims, “There he is!  Jesus is alive!”

She apparently enthusiastically told her parents that Jesus was alive because that was the last time this family attended the congregation. They did not believe this part of the Christian story and did not want their child to accept something that they did not believe. I heard this child, years later was a college student studying abroad and flew back to the US aboard the ill-fated plane that crashed over Lockerbie Scotland.

When you do not believe in the resurrection, it can feel a bit awkward to celebrate Easter.   We don’t really know what to do with it.  We feel an obligation to acknowledge the day because it is part of our heritage.  But we don’t feel comfortable in proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus.  We instead would rather celebrate the metaphor of resurrection through the rebirth of spring.  The rebirth of spring has close ties with the pagan celebrations of new life and fertility that occurred around the spring equinox.   Many UU congregations across the south and southwest have conflated the Flower Communion with Easter celebration.  It is a way to nicely avoid the subject of the Christian belief of the resurrection.

Flower Communion was a ritual developed by Norbert Čapek as a ritual specifically for Unitarians.  He chose to celebrate the diversity of humanity through flowers as no two flowers are exactly alike.  The first Flower communion was held in June of 1923 in Prague just before the summer holidays. According to his wife, Maja Čapek, the ritual was to be more secular in its associations so as to be the most inclusive of all people, regardless of creed.   An important aspect that would grow over time as their neighboring country of Germany grew in power and intolerance of Jews and those of political differences grew deeper.  She stated in a letter[1] that conflating it with Easter would probably not have met Norbert’s approval and an alternative date to June could be to commemorate the last Sunday that he preached which was March 23 before being arrested and subsequently killed by the Nazis in Dachau concentration camp.  These meanings of diversity and acceptance found in the Flower Communion have nothing to do with Easter. I believe the two should be kept separate so that the fullness of each message can be contemplated.

So this leads back to what do we do with Easter?  How do we proclaim the resurrection when some of us might believe it to be an improbable event at best?

Paul of Tarsus, who spread the message of Christianity in the first  century of the Common Era, declared that if the resurrection did not happen, then all of the Christian faith is folly.  In his letter to the Corinthians he states, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”  (1 Corinthians 19)  I know many Unitarian Universalists who would say this is probably the first thing Paul ever said in which they can full heartedly agree.

So if Paul is correct, then we Unitarian Universalists have no reason to celebrate Easter since our hope, our salvation is indeed based in this one glorious life.  But I do not believe Paul is correct.

I think on this point, Paul got it wrong.  Sebastian Castellio after the martyrdom of Michael Servetus by burning at the stake in 1553, stated “to kill a man is not to protect a doctrine; it is but to kill a man.”[2] The same can be said of Jesus, who many call the Christ.  And just what doctrine or doctrines were sought to be protected by his death?   The doctrine that declares justice only exists for those in power.  The doctrine that declares ‘might makes right.’   The doctrine that declares that survival is only possible by looking out for number one.  The doctrine that declares grab what you can, when you can.  The doctrine that declares trust no one.

The seditious doctrine of loving your neighbor as yourself and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is the leavening that not only lived on after the life of Jesus but multiplied and expanded throughout western civilization.  In spite of the horrible tragedies that took place in the name of the Christian church through out its 2,000 year history, tragedies that continue to occur even to this present day, these two thoughts have revolutionized the world.

Yes there is much that the Christian church has allowed to occur in its name. Actions that were more representative of evil than of godliness have occurred in every era.  But the revolutionary idea that humanity can improve and create a more just world continues to live on two thousand years later.

We can celebrate Easter not because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus.  We can celebrate Easter because we seek to adhere to the ideals of Jesus’ message of love for the other.

I attended a Good Friday service at the University Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa.  One of the parts of the service that I found personally powerful was in a section entitled, Solemn Reproaches of the Cross.   This was a litany of ills or sins.  The final one was adapted from the Gospel of Matthew: “‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’  For this you nailed me to a cross.”

We seek to do justice in the world.  We seek to not only feed the hungry but to figure out ways to prevent hunger and famine from occurring.  We seek to not only give water to the thirsty but to also find new ways and resources for clean water to be available.  We seek to not only offer shelter to the homeless but to find ways to prevent homelessness.  We seek to find ways to reduce the racism and the oppression that results in inequity in our justice system.

Nailing to the cross is the refusal to act / to help.  It is a despair that says there is nothing we can do in this life.  It echoes one of my favorite scenes from the Color Purple where Sophie confronts Ceelie on Mister’s abuse.  Ceelie says, “This side last a lil while, heaven last always.”   Ceelie is nailing her life’s situation to the cross, it is a cross of despair, a cross of helplessness, a cross of surrender to the injustices of this world in the hope of a heaven forever.  Sophie responds with, “you betta bash mister’s head open and think bout heaven later.[3]”   While I am not condoning the action Sophie recommends, the actions that we do take to create justice are in the here and now, in this lifetime.   Waiting to go to heaven to have justice is too little, too late.

Whether or not we believe in the resurrection of Jesus, we can celebrate Easter with joy because the ideals that Jesus taught continue to live on.  They are resurrected every time we seek to liberate the poor and down trodden.  Every time we seek to create a safe environment for all of our children in schools we resurrect the ideal that all have inherent worth and dignity.  Every time we seek to find ways to provide health care to all, we resurrect the ideal that all people should be able to live as healthfully as possible. Every time we tell our elected officials that blood for oil is not how we want our country to solve its problems, we resurrect the ideal that a lasting peace is a possibility.

The Standing on the Side of Love campaign that the UUA is sponsoring is lifting up the ideal that love is stronger than greed, that love is stronger than racism, that love is stronger than any ism that is swirling around in this country today.  We resurrect that notion of freedom for all.  This for me is the meaning of Easter.

It is more meaningful than the new clothes or finding hidden eggs filled with candy and trinkets.  These are nice things and I will always remember fondly the Easters of my childhood and the joy a child experienced when she thought she spied the resurrected Jesus in her midst.

In some ways she was right.  She did see Jesus alive.  And her joy in seeing Jesus resurrected is an experience we can all experience when ever we see another person seeking to live out the message of Jesus’ life to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Whether it is a simple kindness like a smile and a hug or working tirelessly to right an age old injustice, there the spirit of Jesus is found.  There the Buddha is revealed.  There Gandhi-ji is honored.  There the Dali Lama is emulated. There Rosa Parks is sitting for justice again.  There Mother Theresa is loving the poor.   There the alleluias are being sung!

[1] Henry, Richard Norbert Fabian Čapek: A Spiritual Journey (Skinner House, 1999)

[2] as found 2 April 2010 at http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/michaelservetus.html

[3] http://www.moviequotes.com/repository.cgi?pg=3&tt=77439

Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 12:01 am  Comments (1)  
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Ritual and Freedom

I was doing some research for a sermon I am writing and came across the following quote,

It is significant that the new capacity for freedom related to movement is actualized as a form of art. Human beings dance–ballet and folk and jazz and ballroom and T’ai Chi–as an expression of aesthetic possibilities.  Each art form is developed as a ritual to express one’s exhilaration and freedom. ‘To us,’ writes Alan Oken in the Age of Aquarius, ‘rock music represents freedom… the freedom to feel, to be one with a higher collective force, to move together in one cosmic rhythm.’  One ‘dances for joy,’  or to express sexuality or religious feelings, as in the whirling of Muslim Dervishes, or to ‘drum’ up emotion for battle, like the war dances of the Native Americans.  Movement and theexpansion of freedom are symbolic expressions of the individual’s career from birth to death.’   From Rollo May’s Freedom and Destiny

I wondered as I read this passage, if this then is the importance of ritual in worship?  The ability to connect with one’s sense of freedom.  There seems to be a resurgence in the need for ritual in Unitarian Universalist circles and perhaps this is the reason–a desire to tap into this sense of freedom.

Rituals serve many purposes.  There is a body kinesthetic– a comfortable body memory–of walking silently, hands folded prayerfully in front of the chest to receive the eucharist from the priest or to walk up to the altar and kneel with hands open to receive the eucharist.  The body is symbolically reflecting a humble submissive receptive form before the holy.  

Now Unitarians Universalists generally do not perform this specific ritual but some congregations in our movement do celebrate communion.  One such communion ritual is that of breaking bread and passing the cup at Thanksgiving time.  The bread might be corn bread and the cup might be apple cider both representing the harvest of a good year and harkening back to the first Thanksgivings celebrated in this country.  This ritual of breaking bread also connects to May’s statement about freedom.  We freely choose to be in communion / in covenant with one another and the ritual honors and reaffirms that covenant symbolically. 

There is also what we have come to call the Flower Communion.  This ritual developed by Norbert Capek, is celebrated annually in many of our congregations.  The ritual is a simple act of bringing a flower and then exchanging it with another flower.  The flowers represent the diversity of our community and how each of us together form a wondeful bouquet of gifts, talents, and personalities.  It too honors the covenant that we have freely entered into with one another.

The most powerful ritual I have witnessed was performed by Rev. Barbara Pescan, currently serving our Evanston, IL congregation.  At the time she was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in the Danbury region.  She was also co-founder with me of the Interfaith AIDS Ministry of Greater Danbury.   We held a monthly interfaith prayer service and invited clergy from various traditions to come and offer a homily.  She graciously came and presented a story about a person she knew with HIV/AIDS in the final days of his life.  She told aspects of his life and of his hospitality even as he lay dying.  On the nightstand near his bed was an Angelfood cake that was made for him.  He offered a piece to Barbara and she graciously ate.  It was a profound moment for her.  And then she brought out an Angelfood cake for us to share  with each other.  As the cake was passed from person to person. With tears in our eyes we each broke a piece off and ate.  We felt not only a connection to her friend with HIV/AIDS but also a sense of grace in the presence of death.  That in our dying we can choose to be free to love those in our presence.   

Rituals in whatever form they take can be a powerful expression of the many aspects of the human condition.  They can help us to connect those aspects of ourselves that we are unable to express fully with words but can express those connections through movement or rhythmic sounds.  There is a sense of freedom in the rituals that transcends the imprisonment of this moment. 

Perhaps in our current world of compartmentalized living that erects barriers between home and business, between partners, between parents and children, between neighbors the craving for rituals in our denomination is a cry to break free of those barriers and to reconnect once again to each other and to our most inner selves.  Blessings,

Published in: on March 13, 2009 at 7:28 am  Comments Off on Ritual and Freedom  
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