Bigger than Jesus
Several months ago, you might have heard the news about one of the most famous paintings in the world: Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” The news is, there’s another portrait underneath, and in this hidden portrait, a different-looking woman gazes to the side rather than right at you, and she is unsmiling.
For 500 years, people have wondered what the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile is all about. Perhaps we finally have an answer.
She is not who we think she is.
As art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon, says, “I think the new discoveries are like a huge stone thrown into the still waters of art history. They disturb everything that we thought we knew about the Mona Lisa … [T]here may be some reluctance on the part of the authorities at the Louvre to think about changing the title of the painting because that’s what we’re talking about. It’s ‘Goodbye, Mona Lisa.’ She is somebody else.”
Now, the French scientist who discovered the hidden portrait under the “Mona Lisa,” Pascal Cotte, uncovered it using reflective light technology. This morning, we’re going to do a similar sort of thing to Easter. We’re going to employ our own version of reflective light technology (the light of reason) to see what’s beneath.
But why should we do that? Why not just stay with what’s presented on the surface? Does this curiosity to go deeper (by using the reflective light technology of reason) merely betray Unitarian Universalist cantankerousness? Our historic heretical bent?
Well, you tell me. Let’s conjure up in our collective imagination what a painting of Easter might look like—what images would be in it that are faithful to this time of year as we know it.
Of course, the resurrection of Jesus story would be there. There would be a cave, representing where he was buried. There would be a huge stone rolled away from the entrance. There would be several women, with lamps, entering with the purpose of retrieving the dead body. But what they find instead is a man clothed in a long white garment, telling them that Jesus has risen, and that they need to find the disciples and tell them the good news. But all this only serves to frighten the women terribly. Their eyes and mouths go round with fear, they drop their lamps, they run away as fast as they can.
And, happily, in their haste, they avoid tromping on the beautiful spring flowers and brightly colored eggs that also deserve to be a part of any Easter painting faithful to how we experience it today. The women would completely ignore the Easter Bunny with his smart polka-dotted bow tie, holding an Easter basket full of goodies, because that simply does not compute. The women would (of course) be completely oblivious to the title of this painting we are conjuring up in our collective imagination, which is a word directly derived from the name of an ancient German spring fertility goddess who, the story goes, mates with a god to conceive a son who just happens to be born at Yule (which is suspiciously close to December 25th and the birth of you know who). This fertility goddess, named Ostara or Eostra, is often portrayed as crowned with spring flowers, holding an egg in her hand, and surrounded by rabbits frolicking at her feet.
Some of these images are just not like the others. But all belong to any portrait that is faithful to the Easter we know. A huge stone rolled away from the entrance of a cave and a bunny wearing a bow tie; a man clothed in a log white garment and a goddess whose hair is wreathed in spring flowers; a dead body that’s been resurrected and a world once withered by winter now coming alive again, in spring.
That strange juxtaposition of elements—how can anyone look at it and not want to ask some serious questions? How can anyone resist turning on the reflective light technology of reason to see below the surface?
So that’s what we’re doing. That’s what so cool about being Unitarian Universalist. You get to ask questions.
And what we find will make us say, “Easter is not what we think it is.”
Below the surface, we find layer after layer after layer, and all these layers tell us of gods and goddesses who suffer and die and journey beneath the earth, only to be reborn as a source of fertility for the earth and new hope for their human followers.
Jesus is not the only one who resurrects.
There is also the Sumerian god of vegetation, Dumuzi, from 6000 years ago, who dies to spend part of every year beneath the earth, fertilizing it. In his absence, the rivers dry up and the desert grows parched. But upon his return, the earth once again bears fruit.
There is also the Egyptian god of the underworld and of vegetation, Osiris, thousands of years old as well, who is cut into pieces by his evil brother god Set. But the goddess Isis searches for his parts the world over and, once they are found, she breathes life back into him so that the crops might grow again. The annual flooding of the Nile was equated with Isis’ tears of mourning, as well as the outpouring of Osiris’ blood—more instances of the gods’ life-giving, fertility-giving power.
This is just so interesting. Layers and layers of resurrection stories that are all about fertility and new life. The layer that comes from the Roman era, just a few hundred years before the historical Jesus lived: how around the time of the spring equinox Romans would carry a statue of their Great Goddess Cybele and remember the death and resurrection of her consort, Attis. His death was on a Friday which they called Black Friday or the Day of Blood. There followed three days of lamentation, penance, and fasting; but on the third day, Sunday, he arose from his tomb. His followers, believing that his salvation from suffering assured theirs, celebrated with dancing and festivities, welcoming the new life that spring brings.
Easter is not what we think it is.
So what is it? Really?
When we turn on the reflective light technology of reason to see below the surface of Easter, we lose some things and we gain some things.
What we lose is the kind of literalism that fundamentalism insists on. Fundamentalism wants the Jesus story to be the only story that counts. But once we see all the other stories below the surface, our focus shifts from certain names and individuals to the fact of resurrection itself.
Resurrection is bigger than Jesus. Jesus is only one way of telling that bigger story.
We lose literalism, and we also lose a distorted sense of self. Fact is, if our sense of Easter is exclusively tied up with the Christian story, then we are victims of historical amnesia and we end up imagining ourselves to be the only ones in the entirety of history who have wrestled with the reality that all that lives must die, but a life well spent nourishes the life that will follow. If we see the Jesus story as the only one that can validly tell this tale, then we cut ourselves off from the devotees of Dumuzi and Osiris and Attis and others down the ages who felt just as urgently as we do about matters of life and death and resiliency and courage and grace. It makes us feel like cosmic orphans, lonely—and the loneliness withers the spirit.
Let’s lose this, because it clears the way to all sorts of gains. Freed from captivity to parochial images, our minds are better able to appreciate the larger truth that’s trying to be known, that every resurrection story is trying to point to.
Another gain has to do with the stories and the images themselves. If we can see them together, then they play off each other and all are enriched immeasurably. Take Easter eggs. Eggs symbolize the miracle of life, they symbolize creation. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Anglo-Saxons would put eggs on the graves of their dead to ensure they would be reborn. So go back to the Christian story of the empty tomb, and the women are searching for Jesus body, but all they find is a man clothed in a long white garment, telling the women that he has risen—at that very moment, it would make all the sense in the world for him to hand those women eggs.
See the images together. Allow the larger resurrection truth to come forth.
Death is a part of life, but life never stops triumphing over death.
Listen to yet another story layer that’s below the surface of the Easter picture. Patricia Montley, in her wonderful book In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals That Celebrate the Earth, offers us this version:
In the ancient time of eternal spring, Demeter, mother goddess of grain, makes all things grow. Her daughter Kore is much beloved of her mother. One day when Kore is gathering flowers with her friends, the earth trembles and from a great gaping hole bursts the chariot of Hades, ruler of the Underworld. Kore screams with fright, but Hades thrusts her into his chariot and urges the immortal horses back to his Underworld domain. The distraught Kore shouts to her father Zeus for help, but he turns a deaf ear to her cries.
Mad with grief, Demeter tears the veil from her hair and the cloak from her shoulders, and like a wild, lonely bird, searches over land and sea for her lost daughter. When she discovers that Zeus had granted Kore to the Lord of the Underworld, the raging, grieving mother withdraws from Olympus, the home of the gods. In her absence, nothing grows on the earth, not the grain in the fields, not the fruit in the orchard, not the flowers in the meadows, not the young in the wombs of animals or humans. Snow covers the earth and famine haunts the people.
Finally Zeus sends a messenger to Demeter, bearing gifts and promises of honors to come if only she will return to Olympus. But the goddess is a rock of resistance. Nothing can move her to save the recovery of her daughter. Zeus relents.
Kore returns from the Underworld and is restored to her mother, whose joy knows no bounds. At their reunion, the flowers bloom, the grain grows, the trees bear fruit.
But Kore has eaten the seeds of the pomegranate that Hades gave her in the Underworld. She has gone from innocent to knowing. Having eaten food from the land of the dead, she is destined to return there for part of each year and fulfill her role as Persephone, Comforter of the Dead.
So every fall Kore descends deep into the earth, and in her absence, her mourning mother weeps the world into winter. But every spring, Persephone rises up again. Overcome with delight at the return of her beloved daughter, Demeter fills the world with green and growing things.
And that’s one of the many story layers right below the surface of Easter.
Why do bad things happen to good people? The best man of all, Jesus, is crucified; and an innocent girl, Kore, is captured against her will and taken into the Underworld. The disciples of Jesus, including the women, weep at his death; and Demeter becomes mad with grief. With Jesus’ death, the disciples scatter and all hope feels lost; with Kore deep in the Underworld, Demeter’s hope is lost as well and the earth feels the sting: nothing grows, not the grain in the fields, not the fruit in the orchard, not the flowers in the meadows, not the young in the wombs of animals or humans. Jesus dies, but after three days he rises and his face shines with the light of his salvation from suffering; Kore is torn from her mother and descends into the Underworld, but there she discovers her individual destiny as Comforter of the Dead and she rises up again with a new name, Persephone. Every year at this time we remember Jesus dying but his resurrection announces that despair can never be the last word, that hope is perennial; and every year at this time, we remember Kore stolen away but Persephone rises up again and Demeter is overcome with delight, Demeter the mother fills the world with green and growing things, and it is springtime, springtime in the earth and springtime in the soul.
See the stories together, and the larger resurrection truth emerges.
And then do this: see yourself in the stories. This past week, this past year, have you felt crucified? Have you felt captured against your will and dragged down into some kind of Underworld? Have you felt hopeless like the disciples, or like Demeter whose grief withers everything? Or perhaps you have endured the valley of the shadow of death and come through to the other side. There is a new light in your eyes; you have a new name and a clearer understanding of your destiny. You know first hand what despair feels like, but you also know that despair has a false bottom, and you can break through to something better.
Like the nature surrounding us, your soul fills with green and growing things. Ostara, the ancient German fertility goddess, after whom Easter is named, whose hair is crowned with spring flowers, who is surrounded by rabbits frolicking at her feet, hands you something.