Keeping Easter, celebrating Easter, for me growing up a Unitarian, was waking up to discover my very own straw basket perched at the foot of the bed, filled with a mound of fake green grass and many colored jelly beans, and the same hard boiled eggs we had dipped with wobbly spoons in strong smelling white vinegar and packaged dye the day before. And at the bottom a large chocolate bunny or chick.
Which is all I ate for breakfast that morning. The only time of year I could get away with that.
It was wearing a new dress from J.C.Penney and new socks and going to services at a Unitarian fellowship where Easter was never discussed at all, and then coming home to an Easter egg hunt with my cousins, and a ham dinner. You know the canned kind with pineapple slices stuck on the top. And then my mother would complain for the next six months about finding stale foil-wrapped candy and rotten eggs, the ones we had missed finding. Or coming across sharp little pieces of the grass from our baskets in corners of the sofa, or behind our beds.
That was it. That was keeping Easter in my family. I was curious to know what keeping Easter had looked like to others in a UU congregation, so last year I put the word out over e-mail to a bunch of Unitarian Universalists. One person told me that she also got a new dress and a new hat. That Easter was one of the few times her father “had to” go to church with the rest of the family, the only other time being Christmas eve, and the religious message was almost non-existent.
Another person also told me that there was no religious significance that she could recall. Eggs, chocolate, dressing up and going to brunch, an Easter egg hunt at her grandma’s. That’s it.
When my own oldest children were small, keeping Easter didn’t look so very different from my childhood. They got up early on Easter morning and discovered their own baskets at the foot of their beds, and dug down to the bottom to find the hollow milk chocolate bunny. After they ate chocolate for breakfast, we all put on new clothes and I wore a new hat and we went to a UU congregation in Kensington, California, where the services were basically the same, except by then the minister, Richard Boeke, had discovered the flower communion we will do later on.
In fact, he was the translator of most of the songs and poems by Norbert Capek we still use. So, we brought flowers from our garden and took away flowers that others had brought.
Still, no “rolling away the stone” story, no resurrection, no meeting Jesus on the road. No Jesus at all.
It was a culturally Christian Easter, attracting the usual larger crowd of folk who once, maybe twice a year still keep Christian holidays in some fashion. In fact, Rev. Boeke realized that, like a great number of traditional Christians, many Unitarian Universalists only appear once a year at his services. So he would greet us all warmly on Easter, saying “In case I don’t see you, have a Merry Christmas.”
So, I have virtually no experience of keeping a conventional Christian Easter, of getting up early on Easter morning like millions of people will today all over the world to hear a sermon on a hilltop about how Jesus Christ died for our sins and was resurrected from the dead.
I didn’t have to wrestle with whether I believed or disbelieved this story, or believed or disbelieved that he was divine, the Son of God, whose suffering could save us all from death and promise us eternal life. I wasn’t convinced or converted by this story, and I wasn’t wounded by this story. I never heard it.
The Easter I kept is pretty much the Easter I have still been keeping, except lately when I have been wondering whether there is something else, something more meaningful for me and my family to keep in this story that has been at the core of one of the world’s major religions for nearly 2,000 years. One that fits with my own reason and experiences, and what my beliefs and continuing questions are about living a good life and dying a good death. You see I’ve been wanting to lean into the story a little harder. Lean into Easter.
For me, it’s not about proving or disproving the part of the Christian Easter story that tells about the women coming to the tomb after the Sabbath and then suddenly feeling the earth quake and seeing an angel of the Lord descending from heaven. Showing them that Jesus was no longer there, that he had been raised from the dead and was going ahead of them to Galilee. All we know for certain from historical accounts is that a man named Jesus did live and was crucified. We don’t know whether or not any of the so-called Easter events happened, whether as traditional Christians believe, on the third day after his death he came alive again, or whether it was an hallucination of the disciples, or, as Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, which predates the very first gospel story, suggests his experience of meeting Jesus after he died was more like a vision. That Jesus was with him almost as if he were still living. Almost. But not really.
We do know that in Jesus’ time and part of the world, one way of convincing people of the greatness of a particular spiritual leader was to tell miracle stories, and that ideas about life after death, a major miracle, were already around in Jewish and Pagan tradition. That it must have been hard for his followers, who loved him so much, to have to let go of him in death. That such a good and courageous man could have died so horrible a death, and be gone from their lives forever. How much they must have wanted him to come back to life.
As with all miracle stories, Unitarian Universalists in these times, ask not “Was this real?” Can it be proved historically or scientifically, but rather “What can this teach us?” About how to live and even how to die. I was reminded of this shift from examining religious stories as historical events or provable facts to exploring the meanings behind and within them when I watched the animated movie Prince of Egypt. This wonderful film about Moses was filled with familiar miracle stories: the encounter between Moses and God in the form of a Burning Bush, the Passover story with its account of terrible plagues and the miraculous escape from death for the firstborn Jewish children, the sudden parting of the Red Sea.
I can tell you I have never seriously questioned the historic truth of this Bible story. Haven’t spent much time wondering whether Moses really lived, or even the Pharaoh he asked to let his people go. Whether there actually were plagues of blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, endless darkness, and the death of firstborn Egyptians. Or if the sea really did open wide for Moses and his people and then swallow up the pursuing soldiers.
It’s not that I believe these things. It’s that this is not the important part of the story of Passover.
For many Jewish people, how to keep Passover has been just as puzzling, even painful, as how to keep Easter for people who cannot believe and don’t want to observe religious holidays the way they were taught. So, we don’t celebrate Passover anymore, or if we have a Seder, the symbolic Passover meal, we might just eat the food: the matza ball soup and the gifilte fish and the macaroons, and not read the Haggadah, the traditional story, at all.
After letting it go for a while, some of us want to keep Passover again, to really keep it, to find what meaning there is once we strip away the parts of the story we cannot believe or the parts of the story we don’t agree with — that it was okay for the innocent Egyptians to die in order for the Jews to live, or that the story is just about a people, instead of all people seeking freedom.
The Seder we held on Wednesday night, first night of Passover, traditionally a time for family celebration, was just that — an extended Georgia Mountains family gathering, Jews and non-Jews, singing, eating, and reconstructing this traditional service, revitalizing it, revaluating it, opening it up to a different time, a different group of people. People reading the Hagaddah, the Passover liturgy, who were male and female, young and older, hikers and rock fans and wrestling devotees. Never forgetting the history of the service. But allowing this religious holiday to change and grow beyond its original audience, its original boundaries.
The people who put together and those among us who attended this Seder for Passover leaned into it, and rediscovered the resilience in humor and relevance to today’s struggles for freedom and dignity they could keep.
When I lean into the story of Easter these days to find its meaning for me, I am drawn to the story of Jesus told by Marcus Borg, who wrote a book called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and another called The God We Never Knew. He describes Jesus as a spirit person, who had frequent and vivid experiences of the sacred, of God, like Moses and other prophets. This Jesus was a healer and a wisdom teacher. A movement organizer. Some people thought he was insane, eccentric, even dangerous. Some of his followers thought he was not dangerous enough to bring about the changes they desired.
Jesus was arrested, convicted, and hung on a cross, which was the way some men were executed in those days. When his disciples and followers learned about his death and began to mourn, realizing their own cowardice in abandoning him when he was about to die, they re-membered him. They continued to experience him after his death in a radically new way, as a spiritual reality for those whose lives he touched and continued to touch over the centuries following his physical death. His ideas, his teachings, his love for people and their love for him could not be killed, in fact were resurrected, brought to life again. For Unitarian Universalists, this story symbolizes the power of ideas to live on after us. To leave such a legacy can give our daily lives meaning, and the opportunity to keep loving those we loved for as long as we keep their spirits with us.
No one has died in vain. This is the claim that resurrection throws in the face of death.
Along with the dyed eggs and my new hat and a special breakfast, maybe just chocolate, I think I can keep this Easter. This story of resurrection.
What Easter can you keep?