Sunday, 5 February 2012

Easter Ramblings

Many people have asked me, what is it that I, a Unitarian, believe, and, because we do not hold with a belief in the Holy Trinity, what do we do about Christmas, and, more fundamentally, Easter?

Well, traditionally, Unitarians have never had a problem with Easter; it is only in the past 30 or so years that it has become the vogue to dismiss Easter as, well, “too Christian” and therefore somehow not inclusive enough. Perhaps, Easter is, well, a bit uncomfortable for us as well. It’ easy to adopt the view held by James Martineau that reason is the seat of all authority. Using his logic, therefore, Easter as being miraculous and not conforming to the known laws of nature and science can be dismissed as being superstitious and un-reasonable. When you are dead, you stay dead, that much we can observe and know. But perhaps, perhaps, there is more to Life, the Universe and Everything than what is empirically observable and deemed to be rational. I believe that Life, the Universe and Everything is far more complicated than we give it credit; we as humans fear change and crave control and understanding. By subjecting Life the Universe and Everything to laws and observation in some way we can control and understand it, and that makes us feel safe, comfortable. The problem then is, what do we do when Life, the Universe and Everything doesn’t correspond to our laws and comfort zones? 

Easter, my friends, is one of those ambiguous, uncomfortable areas. No one said following Jesus was easy. Or comfortable. Perhaps we need to get out of our comfort zones, and be challenged by the awesome majesty of God and the timeless wisdom of Jesus.

Easter is obviously a big deal, and we can make it comfortable, safe, tamed. We have our services, sing our Easter songs, share food together and mountains of chocolate. We don’t deal with or avoid the challenge of Easter. It is a filled with confusion and even an uncomfortableness. But whatever our theology or our comfort level with the Christian tradition may be, I think that Unitarians can still celebrate Easter with integrity.

Easter, while it is the central holiday of Christianity, is not merely Christian. There are a lot non-Christian elements to our Easter celebrations. Easter happens right around Passover, the Jewish holiday celebrating the release from bondage in Egypt and a ceremonial re-enactment of the Exodus story. Many scholars believe that the Last Supper that Jesus held with his disciples was in fact a Seder; a ritual Passover meal. This makes sense since Jesus was a Jew. Many of the early Christian probably continued to celebrate Passover in the few years following Jesus’ death. Obviously, as Christianity and Judaism grew apart, so too did the two holidays of Easter and Passover. A friend of mine, who is a Methodist minister, once joked to me that the reason we traditionally eat ham at Easter was sort of the Christian way of sealing the deal that this is not Passover.

Passover celebrates the new life of the Promised Land. Regeneration and transformation are the common theme.

More, much more than this, is the Easter faith, that belief in the power of love greater than death.

Easter itself embodies ambiguity. Easter is about a man who is killed, put to death by capital punishment, and then comes back to life two days later. Orthodox Christians would say that this event should shake our life to such an extent that they call it the mystery of faith. Perhaps you have heard that phrase in other churches or from televangelists. In some ways I agree with them. If what they mean is that God or the Holy is mysterious and majestic, unknown and unknowable, then I can go along with that. I have a bit of the mystic in me, or at least I try to make room for the mystical to whatever degree I can. Martineau and others said that reason must have a place in religion if it is to be relevant at all to human beings that by their very nature must reason and understand. Yet I would argue with these great men of our history. From my vantage point of the other side of the century and a half that separates us, I think that Unitarians can take reason too far. I am not saying get rid of reason; it is fundamental to the Unitarian gospel. But we need to add to it and temper it with some of our much-loved ambiguity. Reason alone creates a religion from the neck up, we become Gods frozen people, not allowed to express the full nature of our hearts and souls, which yearn, laugh, and feel sorrow and joy. I think this is why Martineau recanted his belief in the supremacy of Reason above All. He found in his life that God , Life the Universe and Everything, could not be so easily described and contained by reason, that God transcended all these things. That the final arbiter was not reason, but the human conscience and experience. We need ambiguity to live as authentic human beings with integrity. We need to become a thinking and joyous people of God, worshipping in beauty and in truth with head AND heart, not just head.

Thus there is an ambiguity between the mystical and the rational, between the man who can be resurrected from the dead and the scientific knowledge that no one can come to life from being dead three days outside of the pages of a sci-fi novel. The ambiguity of many Untiarian beliefs is that there is holiness in the world, and we may never fully comprehend it. And yet there is a drive to understand the sacred so that we can use it and make it applicable to our lives. This is the pragmatic nature of Unitarian spirituality.

We struggle to live our life in the face of this ambiguity. Ultimately, this is the struggle to live a life of faith. Faith is not blindly swearing allegiance to someone or something. It is about putting trust, hope in something. We have religious or mystical feelings, we experience the presence of the mysterious and the sacred, but we are also trying to understand it, to make sense of it, to apply it to our live and to our relationships. But it is messy. The spiritual life is messy; there is no systematic way to live, at least none that has been written for everyone everywhere. The Life of Faith is one lived in midst of ambiguity. It is a life that acknowledges that there is more to life than just this and is also trying to figure out what that life may be. What is my life beyond just this? How can I have a little transformation in my life and with the people I love? How can I get a little piece of the Resurrection, the newness of Spring, the freedom from Egypt, in my life? In short, how can I get the miraculous to break into my everyday mundane world? These, my friends are the questions that have many provisional answers, but no definitive answers. These are the questions of the religious life on the spiritual journey.

There is a scene, actually a recurring theme, in the movie “American Beauty”. In this particular scene we see that the boy across the street has dozens of videotape lining his wall. One of the tapes is of a plastic grocery bag flitting and flying about in an ally. What is the point of this movie? He explains that he sees so much beauty in the world that he cannot contain himself and so he feels the need to film it. For him this simple plastic bag was a revelation. It was as I have said earlier, and encounter with something holy that is greater than ourselves and yet is closer to us than anything could possibly be. The theologian Paul Tillich says that at any moment the power of God as the New Being could enter our lives and become a sacred moment. This moment he calls ‘kairos’. There is a Zen saying that makes a similar point. A student asks his master at the monastery, ‘What must I do to attain enlightenment?’ The master replies, ‘Chop wood, and carry water’. Every day activities can be the doorway to the miraculous. It is not easy. The irony is that even though we cannot force enlightenment, we can be open to it. The discipline of a spiritual practice is designed to open our hearts as wide as possible so that we can become all the more sensitive and live as many moments as possible in the presence of the sacred. For every minute of every day to be kairos.

The word resurrection, however, is tricky; the word used in New Testament Greek means “to be awoken” or “re-awakened”. In Aramaic is means “to be resuscitated”. Whilst this has led many to imaging a conspiracy theory, that Jesus wasn’t actually dead when he was taken down from the cross and was, in some way, revived, rather like a 1st century A&E ward. These theories, I think, try to explain way, get rid of the challenge and ambiguity at the heart of Easter. Even if we don’t like the idea of a literal coming back to life, then the idea of being resurrected into a new life, a life of love, a re-awakening, being awoken afresh in your very soul each day to the love and experience of God.

Putting to death every day, ourselfishness, pettyness, our ego. Allowing ourself to be re-awakened into the Christ consciousness.

Thus we are able to solve the ambiguity of experiencing the sacred and the desire to understand and reason the sacred. We solve it by being open so that the holy may break through into our everyday experiences, that through such experiences and renewal transformation is possible and that we need to remind ourselves of this every year with a ritual.

We need to live every day as though we too are resurrected, as though each day we are re-born and look at the world afresh each day. Live a life of renewal and selfless love.

This is the experience that the disciples had on that first Easter Sunday. They had an experience so profound, so life changing that affected the rest of their lives; an experience of a man who caused them to rethink their actions, whose teachings reached out across the social barriers and religious norms of their day, reaching out with arms of love to touch the untouchable. On that first Easter day, on the Road to Emmaus, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, those men and women had a life changing experience of God that is available to us all. They encountered something beyond themselves, unique, personal and holy, relevant to their lives leading to a transformation in how they saw themselves and each other. They encountered the life changing, all embracing, beauty of the love of God. A love made real in their own lives, encountered through the ordinary and the extra-ordinary. An experience open to us, even here today in this Chapel.

They were resurrected, made new, “awoken” in the love of God.

My friends we have no reason to fear ambiguity. It is not nice and neat, but then again few things in life are. I never trust simple answers to complex issues. We do not live in the cookie cutter world we live in a world of contradictions and confusions. Unitarianism celebrates these paradoxes when we celebrate Easter. It is a holiday that itself is a conglomeration of many parts and reflects for us the many ambiguities of life. We are mystics who reason. We fear the holy, and yet we are fascinated by it. We cannot live without the encounter of something beyond ourselves and yet we have no idea how to make such an experience relevant to our lives. All we can do is to be humble, to be Christlike. To open our hearts to the many opportunities for love and compassion that surround us, and to try and seek for a little peace and serenity I the process. May we heed the message of Easter, and all of its sources, to live a life transformed by faith and resurrected in a new way of living and being. Amen.


  1. I don't see ambiguity in the simple question of whether a chap came bck to life after two days or not, assuming it was two days (because that is the tomb story). On that simple question the answer is no, or it is time to explain otherwise and go after the Nobel Prize for Biology. The rest, of course, is all the mythic and meaning associations, along with the resurrection beliefs held by some Jews at the time.

  2. The ambiguity lies in the belief and the interpretation of that miraculous event. The best interpretation I have read of Easter is "Jesus died but Christ has Triumphed": the man Jesus died but his spirit,the spirit of love in action, triumphed. Yes some Jewish groups held a belief in resurrection, as did the Greeks. The story of Jesus and Lazarus (I'll post on this later) is very similar to Heracles at the tomb of his lover Ioleus.Whilst a Greek would tell you that Heracles was the world's greatest hero, they would also say he existed in the "time of heros" so may have not been "really real" but the stories about him were inspirational. Stories that were believed not because they were neccessarily true but what they said about the human condition: in the case of Heracles and Ioleus is that love is stronger than death and, as the Greeks also believed, if someone's name is remembered then that person is remembered too. Hence the suggestion in the Communion story of "do this in memory me" : remembering the life of a man when gathering for a communal or family meal. Jesus' resurrection is one of many resurrection myths of the ancient worldand one that Christians chose to believe over the "competition".