Ancient Myths, New Life

This is a reflection I wrote several years ago for Easter.

Our spiritual tradition emerged from of Protestant Christianity but we no longer follow its biblical theology.

So while the United Church is proclaiming joyously that Christ is Risen, perhaps this service on Easter Sunday should be advertised with the words: “Come celebrate with us. We don’t know what happened.” (UU joke)

Easter is a tricky theological event for Unitarian Universalists.  Even for those of us who experience the presence of God, it’s hard to accept that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven having died for human sin so that we may all have eternal life.

I can accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but not his divinity as the son of God.

Celebrating his birth at Christmas is one thing – after all every night a child is born is a holy night – but it is much more difficult for me to understand the veneration of his death.

With our fifth source of wisdom calling us to heed science and reason, I don’t accept the resurrection as historical fact. The gospels were written decades after his death. They aren’t eye witness accounts.

The earliest gospel in its original form – the gospel of Mark – says nothing about Jesus returning and being seen by his disciples.

I struggle with the bible as a historical document, but as a collection of mythic stories it offers wisdom into the human condition.

It has been said that “the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.”  (Antony de Mello).

Stories give us a way to reveal deeper truths, ones that are hard to express in facts: what it means to love someone, how life is both searingly painful and wonderful at the same time, the fear of death. These things we tell sideways – through poetry, through story.

The story of Jesus on the cross and what happens next is a grand tale of death and resurrection, divine miracle and the very human need for hope.

But it tells us more about humanity’s lament about the finality of death than about what happened that long ago day in Jerusalem.

Easter mythology is an old tale told in a new way. A very old tale indeed.

Rev. Kendyll Gibbons writes: “Spring in Minnesota is an act of faith. Easter comes, whether or not the climate around us has noticed, whether or not the sun has fully struck through the last of the winter’s chill. Every year it varies; the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. You have to know that this is a pagan holiday, with a little bit of Christianity grafted on; who would celebrate an historical anniversary according to such an esoteric lunar calculation? The very name of the day is pagan.”

Gibbons is right.

The Easter story evolved from even older myths from even older civilizations that surround the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

Stories of death and resurrection has been told all over the Middle East and Northern Africa in all sorts of variations for over 6,000 years.

It’s a story of love and death, of fertility and fallowness. It’s a story of spring.

daffadil crop

One of the earliest variations of the story is about Ishtar, the Babylonian Goddess of war and fertility and Tammuz, her son or her husband – the translations differ.

Tammuz is badly injured by a boar when out hunting. He ends up in the underworld, not dead but spellbound in a sleep.

Ishtar laments:  “Him of the plains – why have they slain? The shepherd, the wise one. The man of sorrows, why have they slain him?”

Grief-stricken, Ishtar goes to find Tammuz in the underworld. Ishtar goes through various trials to reach Tammuz down in the depths.

She spends three days underground and during this time the world above falls asleep, nothing grows. Ishtar awakens Tammuz and when they return to the world fertility returns. The earth awakens.

The Gods and Goddesses personify forces of Nature; their actions shape the world as they fight and love, betray and reunite. A grand drama played out across the sky and the land.

Each spring, the Babylonians ritually re-enacted the story of Ishtar and Tammuz. The ritual honours the fertility of the land, the god dies so the grain may grow.

Life ends so that life may begin again.

The death of Tammuz was told as an act of worship, as an act of respect for the earth.

Centuries later, the Egyptians also shared myths of Gods dying and being reborn. Isis, who was the great mother goddess, had a husband Osiris, who was seen as the first King of Egypt and the bringer of civilization.

Osiris is trapped and killed by his brother Seth, who is jealous of his virtue. Isis searches everywhere for Osiris and finds parts of his body scattered all over the land. Through many adventures she brings his body back together.

In one of her forms Isis has wings. She fans them over the reassembled body. Osiris is revived.

Isis says “Osiris! You went away, but you have returned, you fell asleep, but you have awakened, you died, but you live again.”

But Osiris doesn’t return to life in the world. Instead he becomes Ruler of Eternity; he lives in the underworld and judges the souls of the dead. Isis stays in the world and gives birth to their son Horus.

Life ends so that life may begin again.

These are powerful stories from a time when people believed the Gods and Goddesses were manifest in creation, expressed in the seasons.

In spring the Nile River rises, swollen with the tears of Isis as she mourns Osiris. As the waters restore the parched fields, Osiris is revived in the greening plants.

Life and death, fertility and fallowness, are all mixed up together.

Life ends so that life may begin again.

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What I find interesting about the story of Jesus in his final days is how it both echoes and challenges the older myths of Babylon and Egypt.

The earlier stories are about Gods and Goddesses  – not people, but Jesus is a person as well as the son of God. His story becomes the human story.

Like Osiris, Jesus is betrayed. He is crucified, hung on a wooden cross to die, a common form of execution in his time.

After his lonely death his body is placed into a tomb and it is sealed by a rock rolled across the entrance. Three days later, women go to the tomb to care for the body. When they get there the rock has been moved, the tomb is open, and it is empty.

The women weep in shock, and an angel appears to tell them that Jesus has risen. This is where the original gospel of Mark ends. Jesus has risen, but this remark isn’t explained.

The story of Jesus mixes myth into history. It’s a fascinating blend of new theologies and old images, shifting the old myths of the Gods into the new religion of the One God.

The gospels are rich with historical detail while asserting this new mythic way to understand humanity and the divine. Death and resurrection still happen in the spring, but the story of Christ isn’t related to the changes in the land.

His story isn’t about the Gods embodying the cycle of nature. Of life ending and life beginning.

His story is about how people die and are reborn, about our relationship with one all-powerful God, a God that is beyond nature, indeed this a God that can confound the cycles of life and death.

It’s now life never ending.

With the death of Jesus humans no longer die. Christians are promised eternal life in heaven. It’s a paradigm shift.

The idea of everlasting life is appealing. While I can intellectually accept that Death is a necessary part of life, it is not so easy to accept in my heart.

Many of us have loved ones we miss dearly, that we long to be reunited with. The thought of being together again is a great comfort. It lessens the pain of loss.

And wanting life – your life – to continue on is understandable. To believe my life in some way will be unending sounds wonderful.

But I don’t know if this is possible.

Truly, we don’t know anything about what happens after death. It is the last “great adventure.” It’s the mystery that all of us, every being, will meet one day.

All we can do is live here on this earth right now. And live as well as we can in the face of inevitable death.

In the end, the older myths appeal to me more, the ones that don’t offer me hope of my own everlasting life, but point to a harder truth that life goes on even when I will not.

The daffodils of this year are not the same daffodils as last year.

The old makes way for the new, it is that never ending transition that makes life precious.

We are all temporary beings. Life ends so that life may begin again.

Life as a whole renews endlessly.  Ishtar returns from the underworld and the earth reawakens. Osiris is torn apart but is knit back together. Jesus is born and dies yet lives on in people’s hearts.

I take comfort in knowing that when I die, babies will keep on being born. Winter will end as it always ends. Life will spring forth as it always does.

In a way I feel relieved that while I can do my small part to live well, that is all I have to do.

I’m not responsible for the sun rising or the snow melting, just my own small part of this time and this place. Life carries on, with or without us.

While the ancient myths speak to the reality of death, they also highlight the fallow periods of life, reminding us that they provide the fertile ground for new life.

We might enter the underworld many times during our lives, but we can emerge restored.

One moment it seems like the snow will never go away, the trees and the earth are a uniform dirty grey, and then one morning there are purple crocus’ blooming. The grass is growing bright green. The cardinals are singing lustily.

Life is back!

We too can be brought back to life. We might have a time of sleeping, of darkness, but the planet continues to turn and we awaken. We feel forsaken and then forge new connections. We find a new path and start walking. Resurrection!

This is not easy, it takes emotional strength. And it’s a messy process.

Spring is an ugly time of year. The earth looks hung over. In my garden, broken branches and scattered leaves are remnants of the stormy winter. But the green shoots of the tulips are already bursting forth. I just have to help by cleaning up a little.

And life will burst forth, even if I don’t clean up the broken branches. It might be a little messier, but the green grass grows again.

There are times when for three days or three months or three years we live suspended, not knowing whether we are truly alive.

These are times which can be incredibly lonely, when it is so hard to connect to others, so hard to connect to our own spirits. We can become so isolated in pride and fear of telling others about the fallow periods.

Yet the ancient myths remind us that we aren’t in this alone, even when we think we are.

Jesus cried out, believing himself forsaken by God. But He was not. Osiris was in pieces, but Isis put him back together. Tammuz was alone in the underworld, but Ishtar came for him. Even the Gods needed help sometimes!

These myths remind us that we are not alone. We all belong somewhere, to someone, to something. We all belong to this grand drama of life on earth.

We can all be brought back to life, through the strength and support of others, through love, through kindness.

We might need to get out the rake and make the first move, or even the second or third moves, but life will respond.

The wagging of a dog’s tail. The kindness of a stranger. The patient support of a loved one. Any small moment might be the beginning of hope. And in the next breeze we can feel that spring is in the air.

We can begin again.  We are not alone, even in the worst depths of despair, someone is looking out for us, whether we know it or not.

Let us be grateful for those that love us and care for us.

Let us be grateful this spring morning for all the kindness and compassion that surrounds us, even when we can’t quite feel that support.

Let us be grateful for ancient myths that reveal deep truths. That remind us that we are part of the cycle of life and death, that despite the broken branches and scattered leaves, spring blooms once more.

As we celebrate life renewing, knowing that spring returns year after year, let our hearts be glad and grateful.

Let us remember that we too can be renewed.

So Say We All.

 

Sources: 

The Myth of the Goddess. 1992. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford.

The Pagan Christ. 2004. Tom Harpur

For Life and Death are One

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.

I first posted this video in the spring a couple of years ago. I’m posting it again in recognition of the upcoming Honouring Loss service this Sunday at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga. A visual poem about the inseparable nature of life and death, it speaks to the Unitarian Universalist sense that death is part of the natural cycle, to be grieved over but not denied. Life crumbles into decay and composts into new life, over and over and over again.

Death and Love and Candlelight

I’m thinking about death and dying this week as I plan for our Unitarian Universalist remembrance ritual this Sunday. Like many religions and cultures at this time of year, many UU congregations  take a moment of shared community to honour our dead. We bring photos to our common altar, tell a story or two, and light a candle in memory of those we have lost. There are many tears, but we are together, connected and caring for each other. For me it is one of the most meaningful services of the year, allowing people to name their losses in community, to speak of death freely.

So when legendary musician Lou Reed died this past week and his wife, brilliant multi-media artist Laurie Anderson wrote a wonderful tribute to him for their local newspaper East Hampton Star, which is making the internet rounds today, I was particularly struck by her words. Light and love are evident in Anderson’s note as she paints a picture of a good dying – leaving this world “happy and dazzled” by nature. There will always be pain in this world, but it is made bearable by the beauty.

To our neighbors:

What a beautiful fall! Everything shimmering and golden and all that incredible soft light. Water surrounding us.

Lou and I have spent a lot of time here in the past few years, and even though we’re city people this is our spiritual home.

Last week I promised Lou to get him out of the hospital and come home to Springs. And we made it!

Lou was a tai chi master and spent his last days here being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature. He died on Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of tai chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.

Lou was a prince and a fighter and I know his songs of the pain and beauty in the world will fill many people with the incredible joy he felt for life. Long live the beauty that comes down and through and onto all of us.

— Laurie Anderson
his loving wife and eternal friend

 

life/death

I like the way this odd little video reminds us of how life and death are intertwined.

Every October many Unitarian Universalist congregations honour their lost loved ones with a Day of the Dead/Samhain/All Soul’s kind of service, it is a tender and beautiful moment of shared sorrow.  Yet I find spring, the season of new life, is often the one which reminds me of how close by death always is.  Perhaps it is the dead voles the cat leaves on the porch, or the smashed snails on the sidewalk, or simply the pace of change as flowers blossom and then fade away.

On grey, rainy days like today, I take comfort in the thought that life arises out of death.  UUs don’t have a common approach to death or the afterlife, being more concerned with life itself, but I personally find solace in accepting that death is a needed part of the cycle of life.  It doesn’t make the pain of loss less, but reminds me that death comes to all, that death opens the way to new life.