(The second of two homilies delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on Easter Sunday, 27 March 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe. The first homily, delivered by Rev. Tera Little, is here.)
On the Sunday after the Crucifixion, two of Jesus’s disciples were walking to the village of Emmaus. They had heard the report from Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, who had gone to the tomb to wash and prepare Jesus’s body; they had heard the two Marys say that that the tomb had been opened, the stone rolled away; that the body of Jesus was not there; but that angels were there, angels who told them that Jesus yet lived.
On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples talked of all of these things. And on the road to Emmaus, they met a man — a man who was Jesus, but in a form that they did not recognize. When the three reached Emmaus, they shared a meal together — and as the stranger blessed the bread, and broke it, and shared it with the disciples, the veil fell from their eyes, and they saw that it was Jesus… and then he vanished from their sight.
The story of Jesus’s death and resurrection is the most sacred story of the Christian tradition. For some Christians, Jesus’s suffering and death is the only thing that saves humanity from eternal punishment. Our Unitarian and Universalist spiritual ancestors had a different understanding of the story of the Resurrection; they believed in a loving God, a God who did not send Jesus to earth in order to exact some required amount of suffering; no, they believed in a God who sent Jesus to earth as a teacher, as a prophet, as someone who could bring to humanity a gospel of love and understanding. In this interpretation, Jesus’s resurrection is a sign of the importance and of the truth of his teachings.
But what about those of us who are not Christian? What can this story mean for those of us who feel more of an affinity to humanism, or earth-centered spirituality, or Buddhism, or Judaism, or any of the myriad beliefs held by Unitarian Universalists today? What can we learn from Easter?
At this time of year, one thing you hear frequently in humanist and Pagan circles is that the Christians co-opted pre-existing Pagan celebrations of spring to make the various Easter traditions. Springtime celebrations of fertility and renewal of life, with eggs and rabbits, were popular in Europe, and as Christianity spread, it embraced these traditions, but overlaid them with a new theology.
But while Easter has adopted aspects of these celebrations of spring, it is more than just a celebration of spring. It deals with an entirely different conception of time.
Earth-centered spirituality — and many other religions as well — focusses on the cyclical nature of time. Every year we have a summer solstice and a winter solstice; every year, a spring equinox and an autumn equinox. The stories we tell at these times of year emphasize the cycles: The Holly King and the Oak King battle for supremacy, each in power for half of the year. When we are in the darkness of winter, we know that we have been here before; we know that in every preceding year, spring has come; and we tell stories and enact rituals to help continue the pattern.
And there are other cycles as well. In Hinduism, there are four periods of time called the yugas that repeat in a cycle believed by some to be 24,000 years, and by others to be more than 4,000,000 years.
When you know you are in a cycle, you can take comfort in that fact. But it can be very disturbing when things are bad and you can’t see the cycle you are in.
Both of my children have lived their whole lives in San Diego. Our older child, Cee1, is now in their first year of college at a school in Pennsylvania. One reason Cee chose to go to a school back East was to experience winter; but Cee’s first winter has been very hard on them. It’s dark. It’s cold. And Cee is not used to this. Of course they know that spring will come… but they have no bone-deep experience of this to reassure them. It does not feel like a cycle.
Sometimes bad things happen, and we cannot see they are just one stage in a cycle. Sometimes bad things happen, and as far as we can tell, they are not part of a cycle. How do we cope, spiritually, when we are faced with unprecedented tragedy or evil?
This is something we can learn from Easter. Easter is different from a celebration of spring. When we celebrate spring, we are in the middle of spring; we are living through spring again, as we have done the year before, and the year before that. When we celebrate Easter, Christ is not being resurrected again; we are commemorating the one time, two thousand years ago, when that singular event happened. Christianity is not about cycles. The Christian view of time is linear. And in Western society, we have adopted this view so deeply that most people have a hard time imagining any other view of time.
So how do we deal with a crisis that is a singular event?
Well, Jesus’s disciples were faced with disaster. The religious authorities were against them; the government authorities were against them; their spiritual leader had been tortured and killed; and one of their own had betrayed him.
For each of us, there will be a time like this in our lives, a time when we feel that everything has gone wrong. When our plans have failed, and when evil has prevailed. A time when we have no hope. When we have looked inside ourselves for the strength to go on, and we have not found that strength. A time when we do not see the Wheel of Fortune turning to raise us up again; a time when we see nothing ahead but failure and death.
In times like these, Easter teaches us the spiritual practice of patience. Of maintaining hope, even when there is no hope. Of trusting that sometimes our job is simply to wait. It teaches that events may come to pass that we could never have predicted; and that victory can come in forms we might not recognize at first.
So this is my Easter wish for us all: When we are in despair; when there is evil in the world and we cannot see how to fight it; when our plans have failed, and we feel alone; when we have fled Jerusalem, and are on the road to Emmaus — may we look into the eyes of the stranger sharing our meal, and recognize there the face of our savior.
Image credit: Jan Wildens, Landscape with Christ and his Disciples on the Road to Emmaus (detail), ca. 1640. See here for more information.
- Who gave permission for me to tell this story about them. ↩