Easter: It Began Before Jesus

Easter: It Began Before Jesus

Glynn Cardy 2023

Although Easter is a feast day in the Christian calendar, focused on the horrific dying and the mythic rising of Jesus, its earlier origins are not difficult to see.

Think of the bunny rabbits, often now incarnated in chocolate form.  Or eggs.  These are symbols of the fecundity of life.  Fruitfulness.  Abundance.   Enough for all.

Think of the flowers, wild flowers erupting on what were cold barren fields.  This is the Northern Hemisphere’s advent of Spring.  Beauty for all.

Easter was a celebration of the power of life, regenerative life, to break forth after the harshness and harshest of winters.  And this power, mythically a goddess, Eostre, touched everyone’s life with goodness.

So, the feast day of Easter was a threshold moment between seasons – some would say ‘the’ threshold moment between dark and light, winter and spring – as the light, the brightness, with all its hope came again and was celebrated again.  The power of the sacred Earth, shining through all life, comes again to triumph. 

This is what Kenneth White, a Celtic poet, refers to in our first reading today as ‘the loveliness.’  He writes:

“(The) loveliness is everywhere
in the ugliest
and most hostile environment
the loveliness is everywhere…

it rises in its own reality
and what we must learn is
how to receive it
into ours.”

And it’s not difficult to see the ending of Jesus’ life, and the re-energizing of his movement in the years following, as fitting into this ancient threshold pattern of from death to life, from darkness to light, from despair to hope.  Jesus’ life lived on, not in his bodily form which died (‘his bones still lie in Palestine’ – to quote Lloyd Geering), but lived on in the spirited life of his movement.

The ancients also recognized other thresholds too in this Spring feast that are reflected in the Jesus stories.  Like the threshold between divine and human – not just divine and human in Jesus, but divine and human in us, and divine and human in the earth and all creatures.  This is a way of talking about sacredness.  And the mode, the manifestation, of this divine/human moment is generosity and empowerment. 

Like the wild spirit of Spring’s generosity empowering life, a generosity by the Earth to all its creatures, so we can detect in the post-Easter stories of the Jesus movement a similar generosity and empowerment.  Whether that story be of a risen Jesus barbequing fish for his friends on the Galilean lakeshore and telling Peter to forgive and get over himself, or of a flaming spirit descending indiscriminately at Pentecost bringing new hope, connection, and vitality. 

So, if you want to see God today incarnated, enfleshed, risen, look for generosity and empowerment. 

The flame story reminds me of Brigid, that remarkable Irish saint/goddess born around 451 CE.  For centuries a fire had been kept burning by the Druidic community at Leinster to celebrate the Light shining in all things, the light that has not been overcome by the darkness.  When Brigid built her community there at Kildare she and her monks and nuns (it was a co-ed community!) kept that flame burning, day and night, for over a thousand years.  Not until the sixteenth century was it extinguished, violently, at the hands of the Protestant Reformers (our forebears).

But then, not unlike what happened for the Jewish community after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE where Judaism developed family table-based rituals, in the Celtic world there emerged the practice of keeping a perpetual fire in the family hearth.  In the Hebrides it was called tending the mother fire, the Light of the divine that is deep in all matter (including us).

So, in the Scottish Hebrides the ritual of the hearth was presided over by the eldest woman of the household.  At the end of the day, she would rake the glowing embers into a circle and place three pieces of peat on the fire.  Then she would cover it with ash – the smooring of the fire – and at the same time invoke the blessing of Brigid on the household, its land, and creatures.  In the morning she would raise the mother fire back up into full flame, symbolizing the light that will not be overcome.

It is not difficult to see these connections between Mother fire, Jesus the light of the world, and the tongues of flame that were said to be resting (dancing?) on the heads of all who gathered at Pentecost. 

And it’s not difficult to hear the call of this ritual – namely to be light, to be energy, to be warmth for others, and to nurture and sustain all planetary life.  For Easter, like the resurrection of Jesus, is not an historical event of the past, but a reminder of how we should live: to be a fire of generosity and empowerment in the service of others.

The story of St Brigid, also alerts us to other thresholds in addition to Spring/Winter and Divine/Human. The obvious one is the indigenous and Christian faiths, and the weaving of these is evident in both Brigid’s whakapapa (genealogy) and her practice.

It is said that Brigid’s mother was a Christian and her father, or stepfather, a Druid, a spiritual leader in Celtic society vested with religious, judicial, and political authority.  One strand of the legend even says she grew up on Iona among the Druids.  (Iona was a holy isle long before Christianity).  The Book of Leinster, a 12th century manuscript, says Brigid was a Druidess, and the leader of the Druidic community of the Holy Oak in Leinster.

With the advent of Christianity, Brigid came to see Christ as her Druid (Columba also used this phrase), and she became ‘Mary of the Gaels,’ and her community became known as Kildare, ‘Church of the Oaks.’  In each of these the Celtic and Christic ways mingled.  As was the temporal with the mystical.  There was no expunging of a pagan past, ripping and destroying anything that did not fit the black and white of a Christian rulebook.  Rather the theologies enriched each other. 

So, there was a sacredness in us, in all, as well as a sacredness beyond us.  There was a brightness, a loveliness, deep in all things as well as a majesty in the heavens wide.  The divine was in our mother earth, in our brother Jesus, in our sister Mary, and in our actions of generosity and empowerment.

This embrace of Celtic and Christian, of indigenous and Christian cultures, while welcomed by many today, was not so in the past.  As Matthew Fox says the Christianity that came across the seas to the Americas and down into Africa, was a religion of fear, not trust; human-centred not earth-centred; of dominance, not love and compassion. This version of Christianity gave power to Christian kings and queens to confiscate lands and enslave peoples.

On March 30th this year Pope Francis revoked three papal bulls from the 15th century (bulls are like public decrees) that enshrined the type of theology Fox is criticising, the type of theology that gave permission for the evangelistic crusades foisted on indigenous peoples around the world.  This revoking is very significant, even now six centuries later.

Imagine instead, over those six centuries, if Christian explorers and people of faith travelling to new lands had a mindset that the local indigenous people already knew God, or knew something about God, that would bless the visitors and help the visitors (the Europeans) in their own faith.  That indigenous peoples like the Celts, like First Nations people, like Māori, had a depth of spirituality that could enlighten both the manuhiri (the visitors) and the tangata whenua, and such spirituality could be enhanced and enriched by hearing of and weaving into it the Jesus story.

The storytelling in the New Testament around Jesus’ dying/rising has a mythic backdrop from both Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures.  Romulus (the founder/leader in Romanism) was said to have suddenly disappeared and been caught up into heaven, and then later made earthly appearances in bright and shining armour.  His was an individual resurrection/ascension.  Whereas the myth of Jewish Maccabean martyrs (160s BCE) is that there would be a universal resurrection of all the faithful who had unjustly died.  This was a communal resurrection – and explains the verses in Matthew 27 about how after Jesus’ death tombs split open and many bodies were raised and came out and entered the city.  I hasten to add that I think neither story of Romulus or Matthew’s bodies coming out of tombs, are meant to be taken literally. 

My point is simply that dying/rising stories from other cultures have been threaded into the Bible, and continued to be threaded into the understanding of Easter wherever Christianity settled – whether that be Ireland, Scotland or Aotearoa. 

For the deep truth of this feast day is not a belief in a historical event, or a one-off supernatural happening that happened to one remarkable person, but a belief in the power of regenerative life, love, and hope overcoming death, indifference, and despair.  And a belief that this won’t happen without us.  That like the old woman at the Hebridean hearth, we need to care for the flame.  That like Brigid and many others, including those among us today, we need live lives of generosity and empowerment in service to others.  And that like the Marys and Joanna in our second reading (Luke 24) we need tell idle tales that won’t be believed of the triumph and vindication of goodness.  A goodness in all.  For the good of all.  Enough for all.  Beauty for all.  Hope for all.