For those who may not know, Leap Year 2020 is exceptionally different from other Leap Years. February, like all the other leap years, had 29 days. But, few knew that March would have 300 days, and that April would last 5 years. [pause for laughter]
Of course, as it is both well known and simultaneously mysterious, the dates set for Easter and Passover use old calculations determined by traditions, inaccurate calendar systems, full moons, the vernal equinox, and meridians. This year, Eastern Orthodox Easter is celebrated next week. But by coincidence, Passover overlaps with Easter in the Western tradition. The celebration of the first night of Passover, observed last Wednesday evening with the seder meal, comes into Christianity as the Last Supper. Christians observe this on a fixed day in Holy Week, on Holy Thursday, or as called by some, Maundy Thursday.
The beginning of the events of Christian Easter start with the Jewish Passover. The Passover is when the Jews celebrate their escape from Egyptian slavery. The story of the Passover explains that if they slaughtered a lamb (this is where Christianity will take the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God), and put the blood on their door lintels, then God would pass over them, when he killed the first born males in the households. The Israelites were to eat the slaughtered lamb, standing, wearing their travel clothes. They were to be ready to run when the Egyptian Pharaoh let the Israelites go, in his despair at this latest and worst misfortune sent by God.
According to three of the four Gospels, this Passover meal was what Jesus was celebrating with his disciples the night before he was crucified, where he instituted the eating of his body and the drinking of his blood for his followers, known today as communion. How symbolically a Christian takes and understands the ritual depends on the denomination.
It is well that over the centuries, and with changing circumstances and understandings, religious leaders who see these observances as essential to their religion’s well-being and identity, have generally cleaned them up of their dark and questionable undertones. Concentrating too much on the bronze age and earlier origins and qualities of these myths and observances might even, today, be considered blasphemous or irreverent.
But I purposely draw our attention to these archetypal stories this year, as they coincide, to bring out the even deeper sense of why these stories are retold and, in their rich way, reenacted in various forms each year. The way I suggest they speak to us in Spring 2020, is that, in the middle of the horrific events experienced by the Jews and the disciples of Jesus, nobody knew what was going to happen. The Passover, the Last Supper and Good Friday, are stories about people in the middle of life altering events, who do not know what is going to happen.
Jesus was dead and entombed. The Israelites did not know if they would be fast enough to get out, or how they would survive once they were out of Egypt in uncharted territory. In the commemorated events, everyone was deciding things on the fly. Nobody knew who they could trust. Jesus told them there was a traitor in their midst. The Jews knew very well how God could be pretty mean when he got angry or wanted to make a point. I kind of picture the Jews at the Passover, and the disciples of the dead Jesus hiding themselves in their room, kind of ducking down and looking up and around, like rabbits when a hawk is flying overhead.
Susan Frederick-Gray, the president of the UUA, is doing a marvelous job over these weeks keeping those who receive her messages informed and motivated. In her last message, she mentioned that UUs are frequently criticized for observing Easter without too much regard to Good Friday. I would like to mention that, this year, Holy Saturday might be the reference with which we have much in common.
Holy Saturday is the day of waiting, when nothing much happens—it is the time that Jesus is in the tomb, having descended to “Hell.” A better notion of this for our 21st century sensibilities would be that Jesus went to Sheol (Jewish term), or Hades (Greek term), the realm where Persephone lives for half the year as Queen of the Underworld. It is the common grave of humanity; it is a blurry, shadowy place; it is where the once living are kind of aware of things, but no longer living. It is where the heroic go to rescue people, like Orpheus and Jesus.
And while Jesus is in Hades (I’ll use the Greek term), for his followers, who no longer have his physical presence, they have locked themselves away in a room, frightened, not knowing what is happening, and no knowledge of what will happen next. Even after the reports of the resurrection, they stay hidden, trying to figure things out. This is why I say we are like the disciples locked away on Holy Saturday. Here we sit, behind closed doors, afraid or forbidden to go out, not knowing when or how everything is going to end up.
The church building of the monastery to which I belonged, as in all Roman Catholic Churches, become empty and cavernous, like a tomb, after the Lord’s Supper service on Thursday evening. For those attending the Thursday evening service, there is even an element of ceremony to stripping the church of items like altar cloths and candle sticks, and covering decorations and statues. The center of focus of many churches is the tabernacle, which contains the body of Jesus, but with the ending of the service, it sits empty, open, and bare, to show that nothing is there. Churches become echo filled, and give a sense of chill, even if it is not cold. The a cappella hymn chanted during Friday and Saturday is: “Great silence reigns on earth this day, A great loneliness embraces all! For death has had its ruthless way, And captured the Savior of all.”
This is where my mind has been for several weeks, since the “stay home, stay safe” order. Like a Jew waiting for the angel of death to pass over, or a disciple hiding in a locked room, I sit and wait, wondering what’s going to happen in this great silence that is hanging over the world.
It is so quiet now, that when I’m out walking, it is unusual when I have to wait to cross a road. In this great silence there are few cars, no planes, little movement. No sports take place. Celebrations are cancelled. The 7:30AM rush along Rath Avenue is…not there in the morning. On news reports, we see animals coming into, and back to, places they normally would not be seen. This is due to both the lack of pollution being generated, and the quieting of hubbub. Birds, whales, bears…all going where we usually do not see them anymore; skylines and mountains, and vistas, usually obscured by smog, presenting themselves.
I walk the streets of the city and see the closed businesses, wondering which ones might not ever open again. I wonder how long people can hold out, without income or commerce. I question how long this can go on, and whether it isn’t better just to roll with the consequences of the pandemic, because, how long can we live like this? Not visiting or touching family and friends. I ponder the difference between surviving and living.
Of course, we want to be safe, and do all we can to protect our families and our communities. For most of us, we are in a good position to weather the difficulties and inconveniences for a good while longer. (And if you are finding that you are having difficulties, do please let me or somebody know.) But still, we do not know what is going to happen. We are waiting around in the quiet and unsettled sense of Holy Saturday. Or like the Jews at the Passover, we are wondering what the journey we are about to undertake will contain, knowing that difficulties are certain. Our known world will be changed after this—how much? Even Dr. Fauci, one of the people the country looks to for information and advice, has suggested that we permanently abandon the custom of handshaking.
I sit alone, in great silence, where everything is, at the same time familiar and so strange and different, with some fear, and wonder, what is going to happen? How do I handle this?
A member of the congregation sent me a poem by the Rev. Lyn Ungar, a UU minister, that kind of rhymes with my Holy Saturday experience. I will read a portion of it:
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath –
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
And now, at Easter, in silence, I revisit the ancient stores that our ancestors, having gone through much themselves, handed on to us. Because whether in 3000 BCE or leap year 2020, we are not the first to know all these things we are thinking and feeling. Another member of the congregation asked me about the Decameron, which is a 14th century account of a small group of people hold-up in Italy, hiding out, and waiting out, the first sweep of The Plague, The Black Death, in 1348. It recounts people telling stories, of life, and love, and tragedy. One of the subtitles for the Decameron, this account of a plague, is entitled, “The Human Comedy.” The term comedy is used in the classical sense—that is, triumph over difficult circumstances by people bringing their full humanity, their language, their longings, their desires, their faults and foibles, their heroism, to the situation they find themselves.
Susan Frederick Gray writes to us that the stories we tell one another at this time of Easter and Passover, and I’m sure even the many movies we are watching and books we are reading, “help us to understand how to keep our loved ones and our communities whole, and to keep our faith, our values, and what is most important as a centerpiece of how we live and how we show up for one another at this moment.”
Walking in Cartier park, for several weeks there has been an effort made by a group of people to chalk positive and uplifting sayings on the poured path. When they first appeared, there was a whiff of the evangelical about it, and I thought, “I appreciate the effort.” I briefly considered chalking my favorite verse from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Of course I didn’t. But over the course of several days, they began to add some wisdom sayings from…Star Wars, things that Yoda says, and other positive thinkers from movies and popular thought.
Lately, the chalking has not been done—I imagine it’s kind of back breaking to do—but towards the end of the days with the chalk encouragement, it was like I was reading from “The Book of Arnold.” [The “Book of Arnold” is a reference to the broadway musical the “Book of Mormon.” The show becomes about a Mormon missionary who mashes together Mormon Christianity with Hollywood, and things like Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and comic book superhero stories, to create a new religion. The unexpected twist is that this is not a cynical act, but one with sincerity and heart, and ends up helping people. The point being that under difficult circumstances, it is good to offer hope to people in search of hope. Dogma is not as important as being there for one another.]
That is what the fact of Spring underlies in our human comedy. That we are resilient. My favorite sign in town concerning the change in business is at the Blu Moon, it says “Keep Calm and order Carry Out.” We have the stories, we have the histories, we will do what we must do, to help one another and get through this. In 100 years, they will be talking about whatever this ends up being called, and how we pulled through.
As Frederick-Gray writes: “The commitment to mutual care never ended at the walls of our congregations. And we know our congregations are not our buildings, but our people.” We are not in our church building this morning, celebrating Easter with our lilies, tulips, daffodils, and hats. But, we are nonetheless here for one another and our communities. We stay safe, and at home, to help one another. Call somebody. Write somebody. Order some take out if you can afford it. Tell your favorite story.
Even we UUs keep the ancient days and stories, and even some of the nonsensical and impractical ancient rituals. The word tradition comes from the Latin, and means to give across, or to hand over. The stories, rituals, and observances we remember today and in this season are gifts from our ancestors, for our consideration. They tell us how they survived, made sense of things in uncertain times, and made it through. Because, as surely as Spring comes, the world will turn, and this will pass.
On this Easter Sunday, I offer to you the fact of Spring.
A couple of weeks ago, before congregating was stopped, I was hoping to revisit the myth of Persephone, whose story explains how her return from the underworld brings about Spring and Summer. Yet another version of the theme about those who go to hell and back.
In the continuing great silence today, in the fear and wondering, in the uncertainties, we see nature and remember the fact of Spring. We remember the stories about people in the middle of life altering events, not know what is going to happen—but we tell the stories to remind ourselves of the endings, the resigned acceptance, the overcoming, the perseverance.
In the hymn chanted on Holy Saturday, while Jesus dwelt with the dead, the last verse spoke about the coming of Easter.
And oh, the darkness fades, and oh, the break of day.
And all the prisoners freed, for You have snatched the keys.
And oh, lift up your heads, for we have hope again,
For we have seen great Light.
Happy Easter. Happy Spring. Persephone returns. Happy Passover. The Lord is truly risen.