Easter Day: Symbols of the Resurrection

Easter Day: Symbols of the Resurrection

My favourite symbol of Easter is the rabbit.  Maybe its my childhood with Beatrix Potter.  Cute, little mischievous fellows and fellowesses, with lots of cousins.  Or maybe it’s my love of the absurd.  

I remember one painting of Jesus hanging on Golgotha’s cross and all over the hill were these two-eared fellas and fellaesses.  Rabbits in 1st century Palestine?  Bunnies at the cross?

The link between resurrection and rabbits is fecundity.  Rabbits as any New Zealander farmer knows, and fears, propagate.  Lots.  Lots and lots.  Cousins and cousins.

Resurrection too is about life.  Lots and lots of life.  It isn’t about the miracle of one transformation, or even the transformation of the Jesus movement (those who crafted the ‘up from the grave’ accounts).  It’s saying that the spirit of transformation – of bringing hope out of hopelessness – is as fertile and active as a rabbit.

Hope pops up, hops up, just when you don’t expect it.  And then its first cousin pops up right beside it.  Then their brother’s friend, or is that a 2nd cousin?  And before long there is a whole hillside of hope seriously disturbing the way things were.  Little symbols of hope, hopping up and down, happy playful little critters.

If your South Island whakapapa finds this symbol difficult try pomegranates.  You’ll find them fruiting all over liturgical artwork from the Middle Ages on.  And you can find them mentioned in the Bible.  (Rabbits are in the Bible too – just saying). 

It’s of course the multiple seeds from the one source that are make the pomegranate a resurrection symbol.  There can be as many as 1400 seeds in one pomegranate!

Out of one transformative action – one change of heart, or one action of gifting – that multiple actions (seeds) of hope can be born.

Both bunnies and pomegranates also appear, before Christianity appropriated them, in festivals of Spring.  All across the ancient world where people’s lives were determined by the seasons of planting and harvest, Spring, the time of growth, was all important.  It was a celebratory time.  A ‘thank-the gods-we’ve-made-it-through-the-privations-of-winter’ time’.  There would be a Spring deity or two – like Brigit, Flora, Persephone, Freya…  and of course, Eostre.  And there would parties, singing, feasting, dancing, with lots of flowers.

I was a minister in an English Cotswolds benefice in 2006.  We arrived in February and whilst there wasn’t much snow, it sure was cold.  Especially in the Victorian fridges that were three of the four country churches that I took services in.  (The 4th was Norman!).  Winter lay on the land and in the air and wind.

As Easter neared it was still cool.  But, contrary to my logic, the bulbs in the ground knew it was time to do their thing.  So out came a shoot.  Then another.  And another.  Then a flower bloomed, and another, and another.  Despite what this Aucklander still considered to be freezing, flowers started blossoming all around the churchyards and by the hedgerows.

Wearing an Easter bonnet – a hat adorned with flowers – is a sartorial statement that makes sense in this context of changing seasons, in the context of from barrenness to blossoms, in the context of life bursting up all the churchyard graves.  It is a celebratory adornment proclaiming that life, once again, has overcome death.

In similar fashion today right across this land churches will be festooned with flowers – symbols of joy, of beauty, of life, and – in the context of seasons – of survival.

A word or two about seasons.  The four seasons of the calendar are used in spiritual literature to talk about our lives – seasons of hard work and planting (Autumn), seasons of hardship and loss (Winter), seasons of growth and celebration (Spring), and seasons of relaxation and reflection (Summer).  However, in spiritual time a season isn’t a distinct period of chronological time, nor do the spiritual seasons follow one another in order.  So, for example, a ‘winter’ of loss and grief may be for a decade or more.  And then it might be followed by an ‘autumn’ of hard work and planting.

This metaphor of seasons is helpful in reminding us that the fulfilled or successful life is not one that is always growing and celebrating.  Similarly, with the fulfilled or successful church.  Hardship, planting, growth, and reflection all have their part – and some seasons last longer than others.

I also like the notion of three seasons.  Firstly ‘greening’ – to quote Hildegard ‘that which causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life’.  Secondly, ‘grounding’ – taking off all the clutter and protections that disconnect you from the needs of your soul and from the needs of others’.  And thirdly, ‘giving’ – pouring your energy into the hospitality, help, and kindnesses that make a community work.  Joy, shedding, participation.  And if there was to be a fourth season, I’d called it ‘gratitude’[i].  A season of giving thanks.  For everything.  Even, when you’re ready, the hard stuff.

The transformation that the Church calls resurrection is maybe not just Springtime.  Maybe to experience the spiritual transformation of the Jesus message we need to know things like loss, and work, and giving away, and thanksgiving.  Maybe resurrection isn’t just happy stuff.

There has been some recent work done by Westar Institute scholars on the resurrection and symbols.  One of the interesting findings was that the cross was not widely used as a symbol for the resurrection until the end of the first millennium.  Probably about the same time as rabbits, pomegranates, and flowers.  Which makes one think about how ‘dying and rising’ was symbolised in those early decades of the Jesus movement.

You might have noticed that St Paul, the earliest writer in the movement, doesn’t talk about an empty tomb, or a Risen Christ in the garden or coming through locked doors.  The appearance tradition (and remember St Paul was a recipient of one these appearances) was for the purpose of confirming leadership.  Appearances weren’t for the purpose of individual or community transformation.  Appearances weren’t symbols that invited any follower or inquirer into an experience of God.  No, another symbol served that purpose.

That symbol was a loaf of bread and a cup of wine.  Yes, the community ritual we call communion is the paramount symbol of the resurrection. 

How that symbol works is in two layers.  The first layer is like this:  The bread and wine symbolize Jesus giving himself – in compassion, justice, and mutuality – to others.  When we eat bread and drink wine in memory of Jesus, we too give ourselves, receive and commit ourselves, to that way of compassion, justice and mutuality.  In doing so we become, in a sense, Jesus.  He hasn’t died.  He isn’t finished.  He lives on in us, in you and in me.

Then there is the second layer to this symbol.  As a community by participating in Jesus’ way of compassion, justice, and mutuality we become corporately, corporeally, his ‘body’ in the world.  So, Paul, uses the imagery that one of us is an eye, another a limb, another a hair follicle, etcetera – and when we are all joined together, we become the Body of Christ.  Jesus lives, Jesus is risen, the grave has lost its sting, because we have become his body.  And we are his body, joined up together, with all and any who live and participate in his way of compassion, mutuality, and justice.

So, our Christian faith says the greening, the joy of resurrection, the foundation of hope is found – somewhat magically and miraculously – in a community, like that of 33 CE, of fragile and fractured people who experience healing and grace from and with each other.  Little acts of goodness multiply, and multiply again.  Little acts of kindness bear fruit, fruit with lots of seeds, which produce lots more fruit.  Little acts of beauty multiply, colouring the whole environment roundabout with hope.

There is a story about a spiritual master who asked his disciples when they could tell the night had ended and light had come into the world.

One said, “When you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it is a small dog or a cat.”

“No,” said the master.

“When you look at a tree in the distance and can tell whether it’s a kahikatea or a tanekaha.”

“Wrong again,” said the master.

“Well, then, what is it?” asked the disciples.

“When you look into the face of any man or woman and recognize them as a brother or sister.  If you cannot do this, no matter what time it is by the sun, you are still in the dark.”[ii]

And this is the last symbol of the resurrection I want to mention this morning – the symbol of light by which we see each other. 

[i] You might like to join this global campaign to get people focused on feeling good about what they’ve already got in their lives.

Click on link here Grateful in April

[ii] Adapted from A. De Mello ‘The Prayer of the Frog’, p.227.