Sunday, 12 April 2015

A Personal Exploration of Easter

'Supposing Him to be the Gardener', Cross Bones Jesus by Barry Parman

I have always had a tense relationship with Christianity. I don't come from a religious family, although I enjoyed church on the rare occasions when we did go because I loved my dad's beautiful singing voice and rejoiced in my mum's equally loud but tone deaf singing. My main memory though is of always feeling that I was doing something wrong that I didn't quite understand. I went to Sunday School every week and sometimes to services at the Pentecostal church, which I loved because of the passion of the Welsh pastor, but my first truly spiritual experiences were ones of connection with nature; of feeling the grass growing and all life breathing. In my teens I went along to my local free church every Sunday, mainly because my best friend's family went, and noticed that often people there weren't very kind but felt superior to others because they had been 'forgiven' by God. In my early twenties, just before getting married, I visited a local vicar with my fiancé for 'marriage lessons' and he told us that, if we argued and couldn't reach agreement, the man should have the final say. After that not only did I not think much of church but I was angry. And, as far as I was concerned, that was the end of me and Christianity. Although I still loved going into churches, I had by then discovered the Goddess path and put institutional religion behind me.

Then, in 2012, I began to sever links with my Goddess community and, feeling heart-sore, I sought out a new place where I could connect with people of Spirit. Southwark had already become important to me and so I found myself in Southwark Cathedral and made a quiet home there amongst its pale~as~moonlight walls and gently beautiful services. I liked its connection to my beloved Cross Bones graveyard (of which more another time), I liked its politics, which I had heard were radical for the church and therefore in stark contrast to St Paul's which had recently evicted the Occupy Movement from its steps, and I liked the anonymity that attending a city cathedral can bring. I still wouldn't call myself a Christian but I felt at home and I still do; as a woman of the Goddess and a hedgepriestess of Afallon, I feel no inconsistency in lighting candles to Mary as an aspect of the Sacred Feminine, nor to Jesus who I am sure would be considered a heretic were he to walk into most Christian churches today. There was much that resonated with me there.

But I have always wanted to remain respectful to the religion which had unwittingly given me a home and have avoided Easter services, finding nothing for me in the concept of a blood sacrifice demanded by an angry God as atonement for supposed sin. As Philip Carr-Gomm says in his essay, 'The Fertile Christ' in Mark Townsend's 'Jesus Through Pagan Eyes' (1), “The story of Christ currently requires two images of his death and rebirth, but in practice it is the image of his crucifixion rather than his resurrection that is used as the central icon of the faith...it is his agonising death that occupies the centre-stage...”.

Through my many years of following the Goddess path, I already acknowledged Easter as a festival of the Germanic goddess Eostre/Ostara and of the rising of spring energy and a return of the light after the long, dark months of winter. There is only one primary source for this goddess and that comes from 'The Reckoning of Time' by Northumbrian monk and scholar the Venerable Bede (673 – 735), who said that, “Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated 'Paschal month' and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate the Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance..” (2). Later in the 1880s, Jacob Grimm wrote in his 'Teutonic Mythology' that the Anglo-Saxon name 'Eostre' is related to an Old High German adverb 'ostar', expressing movement towards the rising sun. He claimed that he had found evidence of the worship of a goddess named 'Eostre/Ostara' in oral tradition and said that “her meaning could be easily adapted to the resurrection day of the Christian God” (3). The 'Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture', published in 1997, says that, "a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn is supported both by the evidence of cognate names and the similarity of mythic representation of the dawn goddess among various [Indo-European] groups” (2). Whether she is an ancient goddess carried through oral tradition or a more modern invention makes little difference to me. I sense Goddess~as~Life moving through all that pulses green and newly unfurls its tender wings or petals at this time of year and celebrate the daily changes of life as it rises.

And so I had comfortably settled into celebrating the Sacred Feminine and the changing of the seasons at Spring Equinox and had chosen not to involve myself in the Christian Easter Festival. And then, this year, I visited Southwark Cathedral just as Lent began in February and saw German artist Angela Glajcar's 'Within the Light'. This was a large-scale installation made of several lengths of translucent white glass fabric hanging one above the other, some tattered like feathers, above the choir stalls. The light within the cathedral is one of its great beauties and 'Within the Light' was designed to reflect this light as it changed throughout the day. I found that this soft-winged beauty touched something within me and challenged my preconceptions about the heaviness and darkness of the 'blood-soaked' Christian Easter festival. Canon Gilly Myers' extraordinary sermon reflecting on the Lenten installation can be found here. I resolved to spend the season exploring Easter through my own spiritual understanding to find out whether there were ways that I could respectfully include myself in the life of the church at this important time of year. This has been a very personal exploration, and one which will continue, but here are some of my musings over the Easter period.

I am not the first person to equate the dying and rising Jesus with other gods, such as Dionysus, Tammuz, and Osiris, many of whom have similar festivals in the spring. In this way he becomes a vegetation god, a sort of Green Man or Green Christ. Coming from a land which is so green and fecund at this time of year this image resonates deeply with me. One of my favourite images of Jesus is an image which hangs at Cross Bones Graveyard, 'Supposing Him to be the Gardener' by Barry Parman, which depicts Christ as antlered, crowned with thorns and flowers, and holding armfuls of lilies. In her essay, 'The Lily Cross and the Green Man' (1), Mara Ede-Weaving talks about a medieval mural in a small church in Godshill on the Isle of Wight which depicts Jesus crucified on a flowering lily. She sees this as symbolising both Christ's sacrifice and that of the Green Man, who offers his own body in a seasonal cycle of growth, harvest, disintegration, and renewal. In the stories of both the Green Christ and the Green Man we can find the trust that we ourselves can be cut down, lose everything, and return. They are a reminder that Life wants to live (an energy which I see as the indwelling spirit of Goddess in all things), and of non-attachment to a particular 'shape' that our life might find us in. Last night, in the midst of struggling with this piece of writing, I dreamed of Hastings Jack-in-the-Green festival. This is ostensibly a morris dancing event which takes place every year around May Day. It begins with the 'Jack'; a frame covered in greenery, crowned with flowers, and wearing the mask of the Green Man, being 'danced' through the town, and culminates with him being torn to pieces in a wildly joyous frenzy and his highly prized green leaves being distributed amongst the crowd. This again symbolizes the sacrifice of the Sacred Masculine so that the seasonal cycle can continue; we let go so that we can rise again, we trust that life will hold us and bring us back to renewal. And so it is with the story of Christ on the cross if we choose to embrace its symbolic meaning.

Hastings Jack-in-the-Green

Victorian author and druid, Owen Morgan, believed that the “core of all true religions was the worship of the life force – in the macrocosm the sun and earth, in the microcosm, the male and female genitals; in both the activities that give rise to new life – were the foundations of all religious symbolism...in Pagan as well as Christian traditions” (1). And within this is the image of the masculine as an energy which rises, falls, and rises again, in contrast to the feminine energy which remains constant. Philip Carr-Gomm points out that, in all variations of the ancient story in which a god is sacrificed for his people, “the god represents the moment, the finite, while the goddess represents the cyclic and eternity'” (1). It is this right relationship between the masculine and the feminine which brings the renewal of life, rather than atonement for sin.

Which brings me to the place of the Feminine within the Easter story. For many years, I have equated the time between Jesus' death on Good Friday and his rising on Easter Sunday with the journey of the dark/new moon, which disappears for several nights before reappearing as a tender, newly reborn crescent; life from death. The date of Easter has come to be determined by the moon, with Easter Sunday falling on the first Sunday after the full moon on, or closest to, March 21st. In this way Easter becomes a lunar festival in contrast to the solar festival of Christmas. Often the sun is equated with the Masculine and the moon with the Feminine and I have found Easter a powerful time to explore Christ as both. In her poem, 'A Prayer of Approach', Revd. Rachel Mann writes...

                                   Christ our Sister, unite us in your holy bleeding.
                                  As you took spit and dust for healing,
                                  take our hands, cracked and huge as washerwomen's,  for God's work (4)

It is also a time when we can reflect on the role of women in Jesus's story. Jesus often used feminine imagery in his description of the Divine, particularly describing God's wisdom in female terms, and there are many examples of the importance of women in the gospels. Jonathan Merrit's conversation with Mary Demuth, which can be found here, tells us more about Jesus's radical relationship with women and it was this radicalism which led to the historical Jesus being persecuted, and eventually executed, by the authorities of the time. Malcolm Guite, in his sermon in Southwark Cathedral on Easter Sunday 2015, spoke of Jesus choosing to reveal his resurrection from the tomb to Mary Magdalene before any other. This was at a time when women were rarely listened to, or respected, and yet a woman was chosen to carry such an important message to the rest of humankind. As Malcolm Guite said, Jesus rose at Easter but this was also a powerful rising of women, both socially and spiritually. If only the early Christian church, and wider society, had been willing to listen, then or now.

In the role of Jesus's mother, Mary, we can perhaps bring together the themes of the Green Christ and the role of women. In the Christian story as it has been given to us Mary is shown only as a helpless witness to the suffering and death of her son. Although it is important to reflect on the suffering of women and mothers it is possible to explore a more empowering role than this. In the Bible women's roles are often shown as passive ones. In many of the ancient stories, such as those of Isis and Osiris, Calliope and Orpheus, Rhea and Dionysus, Dumuzi and Inanna, it is women, and often mothers, who dismember and/or restore the bodies of sacrificed gods. This echoes shamanic initiations across all cultures and, in this way, women take on their roles as mentors and initiators of the male mythic journey. I am reminded of the maenads, priestesses of the god Dionysus, who accompanied him in his wanderings and were said to rip apart wild animals in the abandonment of complete union with primeval nature. It is best not to underestimate the power of the female! We can think of Mary as a similar initiatrix if we are able to free her from the shackles of churchianity and allow her to take her place amongst other divine women. And in freeing her we are also able to liberate the historical Jesus and the mythic Green Christ to spread their message of radical love, deep compassion, connection to nature and to the wounded healer within. He becomes the Fisher King and the Feminine holds out to him the Grail of wisdom and healing.

I have come to no conclusions from making my journey through Easter this year and these will not be ways of thinking that resonate with everyone. For myself, I feel that there is much more to uncover but I have followed many roots and paths through the hedge and have found much beauty. I am lifting a prayer that these explorations will move me closer to the Spirit of what moves through men and women and there will be much more to find.

2 comments:

  1. Great job! I admire the humble and respectful manner you write within, as well as the strength and honesty you project. Among anything I believe I most connect to the idea it is healthy to open doors.

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    1. Thank you so much again, Russ. It feels so important to me not to get stuck in any idea and it feels good to explore wherever the heart leads. I like the image of 'opening doors'. Thank you x

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