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Wrestling with Easter

We need a secular Easter mythology.
By Doug Muder
3.25.13

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stone passageway to the light (© Nikolajs Strigins/iStockphoto)

(© Nikolajs Strigins/iStockphoto)

I love being a Unitarian Universalist, and I love the New England church where I’ve been a member for nearly twenty years, but I don’t show up for Unitarian Universalist Easter services anymore. I just don’t know what I’m celebrating. It’s Easter! Jesus is risen! Unless maybe he isn’t. Maybe he just lived on in the memory of his disciples in some metaphoric way that seemed especially important to them. Not that it matters, because God was never going to send us to hell anyway. Assuming there is a God and an afterlife. But the Jews just celebrated Passover and the spring flowers are blooming.

Rejoice!

What do I do with that?

Whenever I get stuck, I go back to the beginning, like a detective re-examining the scene of the crime.

Every year, ancient peoples in the temperate zones witnessed two regularly occurring miracles: the sun turning around on winter solstice and the plant world coming back to life in spring. They were miracles not because they violated the laws of nature—they more or less were laws of nature—but because they were absolutely essential and no one understood how they worked. If some year the sun just kept drifting south until it vanished completely, or the seeds sat inert in the ground like the little colored rocks they otherwise resembled, what could anybody do about it?

Nothing. You and everybody you knew would be doomed, because life totally depends on the continuance of mysterious patterns we can’t control.

The old holidays put you in your place that way, but you didn’t have to wonder what to celebrate. The sun is coming back! The plants are growing again! The Universe has decided to tolerate human existence for a while longer.

Rejoice!

In spite of this clarity, spring was a particularly complex holiday, because even as it marked the annual victory of Life over Death, the battle was always long and costly.

All winter the harvest store had been dwindling. Diseases spread as people huddled together in cramped shelters, and it was hard for the sick to recover when they couldn’t stay warm. The snow-altered trails were confusing, and the early sunsets and cold nights could transform a simple wrong turn into a deadly mistake. Slip on the ice or step through a weak spot and you might not get back to the fire in time.

The Wild Hunt was loose, the ancient pagans claimed. If you were careless or unlucky it might take you. Persephone, the life force, was in Hades. Good luck surviving until she got back.

Everyone who made it to spring had run that gauntlet. No doubt they felt relief, pride in the loved ones they had managed to pull along with them, and gratitude to those who had helped them make it—but also grief and loss and more than a little survivor guilt. (Did you really deserve to survive the winter? Wasn’t there someone better than you who didn’t?)

Scratch the gilded surface of today’s spring holidays, and that underlying grimness still shows through. What passes over on Passover is the Angel of Death, taking the firstborn of every unprotected family in Egypt. The empty tomb of Easter means little without the blood-sweating anxiety of Gethsemane or the torture of Golgotha. Whether it’s the son of Pharaoh or the Son of God, someone has died, and that is why you get to go on.

That heft and seriousness is a big part of what I’ve been missing in UU Easter services. Spring can’t just be flowers and bunnies and brightly colored eggs. The stone that the angel rolls away from Jesus’s tomb has to be heavy.

Of course, the great stories of the Exodus and the Resurrection are far more than just reworkings of pagan themes. In addition to being the origin story of the Jewish people, Exodus has become a paradigm for the liberation of all oppressed peoples. We are all enslaved by something and need to begin the long march to our true home. And the Resurrection is central to Christianity’s unique vision of the relationship between God and humanity. “If Christ has not been raised,” wrote St. Paul, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

Like grand cathedrals anchored in solid bedrock, both stories are built in the right place.


Christmas works so much better for me than Easter. I think the reason is that the secular culture has kept building on the site of Christmas.

Charles Dickens did something incredible in A Christmas Carol. Sidestepping the difficult metaphysics of God’s incarnation at Bethlehem, he started with the down-to-earth Christmas traditions of family and community, included the central Christian value of compassion, and then pulled one key idea out of the pagan tradition: The winter solstice is when things turn around.

An aging miser may seem an unlikely solar hero, but that’s what Scrooge is. In late December, he turns around and decides to come back to the community.

Dickens’s simple tale has turned into a central secular theme of Christmas: On Christmas, lives can turn around. Relationships can be healed. The Whos can sing the Grinch down from Mount Crumpit and his heart can grow three sizes.

Every year new versions of the story are told, reminding us not to give up even on the people whose humanity seems most irrecoverable. And every year we have to ask ourselves if maybe we have become Scrooge. Perhaps we are the ones who need to turn around and come back to the community.

That secular mythology contradicts nothing about the Christian tradition of Christmas, but makes the holiday accessible in a new way. If getting that reminder and asking that question is all that happens to you at Christmas, it can be enough to justify a celebration.

Easter doesn’t have its own complementary secular mythology—no Scrooge, no Grinch, no wonderful lives, no miracles on the streets of New York, no young Virginia to whom the true nature of Santa Claus can be revealed.

And so, when the Christian Easter story stopped working for me, when I could no longer accept the Resurrection or wrap my mind around the Christian plan of salvation, the holiday began to ring hollow. Sure, you can have the family over for a feast, color some eggs, and give the kids a basket of candy, fake grass, and stuffed bunnies—you can even go to church and sing hymns about the spring flowers if you want—but what does it all mean?

It’s a shame, really, because I think we need a secular Easter mythology. And the material to build one is all around us.

Picture a woman who had a good life some while ago, but that life is over. There were people in her old life, but they are gone now and they aren’t coming back. That life provided her with an identity, with roles and responsibilities, a sense of mission and purpose; all that has dried up and blown away.

Since then, she has been running a gauntlet of survival. She has watched other people give up, people who were just as good, as wise, as talented, as deserving. And each time she has thought: Maybe I should give up too. Maybe I’m just being stubborn, clinging to my small spark of life like a seed in the frozen ground.

The story would center on how, one year, the spring got to her: the lengthening days, the sprouting plants—and yes, Easter, with all its traditions both secular and religious. The plot would build through Lent and Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and all come together Easter morning with the realization that it was time to declare her own small victory over death and begin life anew.

Imagine if a story like that caught on, like the story of Scrooge.

Every year when you heard it, you’d be reminded to watch for people who might be recommitting to life in this season of new beginnings, to see what roles they still have open and think about whether you can fill them.

Once a year you’d be invited to consider whether you might be the protagonist. Maybe you are the one who has been dead too long and needs to live again. Maybe it is time to be done mourning for the life you used to have. Maybe it is time to stop waiting for some perfect opportunity that never comes.

Every year you would be invited to consider whether it is time for you to sprout where you are planted, to stop looking at the people around you as some random collection of survivors and ask if they might be the community you need. Maybe the thing you find yourself doing is what you’re supposed to be doing. If you stop holding back from it, it could be a new mission, a new purpose, and a new identity.

Maybe this year you are the person who can and who should and who needs to declare victory over death.

None of that would contradict the Christian traditions, but it would make the holiday accessible in a new way. If that were all you got out of Easter—that once a year you heard such a story and raised such questions—that could be enough.

That could be something to celebrate.

Rejoice!


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