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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Acts 10:34-43, Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18 OR Matthew 28:1-10

The seed for today’s reflection was planted at the beginning of Lent when someone connected it with the season when days begin to “lengthen.”  The word originally meant “spring.”  I thought of all the Easter associations we make with spring, images which highlight the presence of new birth in our midst.  It’s a season when one hardly needs to focus on Jesus to sense hope in the air.

The back of my mind registered a question:  What about the southern hemisphere when Lent comes when the days are getting shorter?  The question rolled around there until this week when it surfaced and demanded to be heard.  It took me all over the internet finding things that might give me a handle on the seasonal mysteries of Easter.  Here are some of the interesting things I found.  Take them for what they’re worth.  I can’t put them all into some kind of logical framework as part of an argument for some particular perspective.  If you want that, you’ll have to do it for yourself.

First, we know that, like other Christian festivals, influences beyond the biblical story have become part of the celebration.  The very name “Easter” comes from an ancient fertility goddess, derived from a word for “spring.”

I found many lively discussions about Easter in the southern hemisphere.  Some there just seem to ignore the seasonal discrepancy and uses all the same spring symbols we do.  Some argue that Christians should separate Easter from all seasonal associations.  It’s not about the budding of trees into new life.  It’s about the refreshing of spiritual breath in human life, hope based on something more than the rhythms of nature.  Still others try to adapt it to the arrival of autumn.

I read about one school in New Zealand that plants bulbs as part of their Easter celebration.  I like it!  Bulbs are placed in the ground in the fall and come to life the follow spring.  It is as if Easter becomes a symbol of anticipation.  The biblical story of the resurrection is a starting point, not the end.  Until the resurrection becomes complete in us, we’re still waiting.  It’s as if a bulb has been planted in us, but we have to wait a “season” for it to come to life.  Even the seed planted in my mind back at the beginning of Lent remained dormant in the ground until now.

One of our readings is from Jeremiah 31.  It is a word of hope to people in exile.  It looks ahead to a resurrection when things will be rebuilt, a time when “again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.”  (Jeremiah 31:4)  Jeremiah speaks of a time when “again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.”  (vs. 5)  If we were to go on into the next chapter we would find the Lord telling Jeremiah to buy a field as a sign that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  (Jeremiah 32:6-15)  It reminds me a little of Jeremiah’s instruction to the exiles to buy homes and plant gardens.  (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

Going back to bulbs for a minute, I found that they “function as food storage organs during dormancy”  They “contain food reserves to enable the plant to survive adverse conditions.”  Wow!  What if the resurrection is as much about surviving adverse conditions as it is about the springtime fertility of the bunnies or the flourish of color on the Japanese cherry trees?  What if living through the decline of nature in the fall is exactly the time we need Easter?  There’s often plenty of hope in the air in spring, but what if the hope we really need is when we are facing adverse conditions---hope which comes exactly at the right time?

My search related to Easter and the seasons also led me to Passover, the Jewish festival most closely linked to Easter.  The way we date Easter (the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox) was established by the Council of Nicaea in an effort to make Easter distinct from Passover.  At the time Constantine said, “We ought not to have anything in common with the Jews.”  Shame on him!  Jesus came to Jerusalem that week as an observant Jew to celebrate Passover.  No monkeying with the calendar can erase the connection between Easter and Passover.

Passover, however, along with celebrating God’s protection of his people during the time of plagues in Egypt, is a harvest celebration.  Much of Israel has a subtropical climate, farther south than most of the U.S.  Growing seasons are not the same as our stereotypes.  The barley harvest comes in the spring and is celebrated at Passover.  As a harvest celebration, it is more like something we would associate with late summer and fall. It is not a time when the seed is beginning to send its shoots tentatively through the soil.  It has reached its full growth and is ready to “die,” to be harvested.  Now there’s something to think about as we consider Easter and the imagery of the seasons.

Chasing up this alley and that, I wondered about the “imperialism” of the northern hemisphere when we speak of the “spring” equinox.  Too often the northern hemisphere has acted arrogantly, even oppressively, toward the southern hemisphere.  That first Easter came in the midst of oppression.  The leader of a new movement had just been crushed by Roman power.  The disciples, those who came to the cemetery that morning, were overwhelmed, crying in despair.  They found hope just when they needed it most.

I was asked recently why Christians venerate the cross, a symbol of torture.  In the particular branches of Christianity where I have found life I wouldn’t use the word “venerate,” but I do see the cross as a powerful reminder of a story at the heart of our faith.  It is a story, a story of resurrection, that says the crushing power of military might cannot destroy love.  You can try to stick love up there on a cross, but it won’t stay.  Psalm 118 begins with the declaration that God’s “steadfast love endures forever!”, going on to say, “I shall not die, but I shall live.”  (vss. 1 & 17)  In my tradition, the cross is empty, as is the tomb.  That’s what hope is ultimately about, not the colorful eggs and green fields.  It can come in the darkening days of fall as well as in the spring.  When we most need it, and perhaps least expect it, it surprises us!

So, what about those other texts?

At the core of Peter’s sermon in Acts ten is a summary of the Gospel story, a common element in most of those early sermons.  (See Acts 10:36-41)  I love the fact that he speaks of Jesus as going about “doing good.” (vs. 38)  Jesus as a “do-gooder.”  Whatever the details of the story, Peter begins with the observation that “God shows no partiality.”  (vs. 34)  Doing good, working for justice and equality---those too are part of the Easter message.

The reading from Colossians connects our resurrection with that of Jesus.  Our resurrection involves seeing things through new eyes, from “above,” setting “our minds on things that are above.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

Then there are the two Gospel readings, both with women being the first to see the risen Lord then having to convince the men.  Mary Magdalene is the key person in both.  The church has often confused her with a prostitute from a couple of other Gospel stories.  She was more likely a successful businesswomen who backed Jesus’ ministry.  Some have even suggested that she was Jesus’ wife.  Whatever her role, one can give thanks for such a powerful woman at this hope-filled moment in the movement of God’s Spirit.

One story (Matthew’s) seems much more dramatic.  In John, Mary seems to have a matter-of-fact conversation with the angels, and she doesn’t initially recognize Jesus.  It is from the latter part of Matthew’s account, however, that I have often drawn inspiration.  The angel speaks of Jesus as “going ahead of you to Galilee . . . Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  (John 28:7 & 10)

I’ve always liked the notion of having to look ahead to see Jesus.  Celebrating Easter at the beginning of the fall season perhaps images that better than our springtime observance.  In the Spring, all the earth bursts with hope.  To celebrate the resurrection in the fall is a strong statement of hope.  It is like planting a bulb and looking ahead confident that the bulb contains life which is going ahead of us.

Two footnotes:

1.  My youngest son celebrates his 31st birthday on Easter Sunday this year.  I was 43 years old when he was born, no spring chicken.  He didn’t coming in the rising promise of my early parenting days, but later in life, perhaps just when I needed the touch of hope he provided.  Hope can come in any season of life.

2.  Pastor Rick has been talking to us, on Sunday mornings during Lent, about prayer.  Margie and I have been reading “Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies,” by Brian Doyle.  Last night we read about his struggles while praying for a dying friend:

“ . . . I mutter my prayers . . ., form them in the cave of my mouth and speak them awkwardly into the gray wind, watch as they are instantly shattered and splintered and whipped through the old oak trees and sent headlong into the dark river below, where they seem lost and vanished, empty gestures in a cold land . . . But I believe with all my heart that they mattered . . . I believe that the mysterious impulse to pray is the prayer, and that the words we use for prayer are only envelopes in which to mail pain and joy, and that arguing about where prayers go, and who sorts the mail, and what unimaginable senses hear us is foolish.  It’s the urge that matters---the sudden Save us that rises against horror, the silent Thank you for joy.  The children are safe, and we sit stunned and grateful by the side of the road; the children are murdered, every boy and girl in the whole village, and we sit stunned and desperate, and bow our heads, and whisper for their souls and our sins.  So a prayer for my friend Pete, in gathering darkness, and a prayer for us all, that we be brave enough to pray, for it is an act of love, and love is why we are here.”

Brian Doyle has, in my opinion, written about Easter!


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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