Easter Liberation

Sarah Richards
March 27, 2016

Easter Liberation

Lo the day of days is here! Easter, festival of hope and cheer…the day that kids look for eggs hidden by a bunny, the day to feast on ham, or lamb, the day Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, the day Unitarian Universalists celebrate…spring? With the eggs, the bunny, the lamb, the cross, the lily, Easter seems such a diverse mish-mash of symbols, each one with multiple meanings.

It reminds me of David Sedaris’ account of when he and his fellow beginner French language students struggle to explain the holiday:

A Moroccan student [shouted], “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?” The teacher called upon the rest of us to explain. The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. [Now remember, this is Sedaris’ English translation of the rudimentary French.] “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and…” She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid. “He call his self Jesus and then he die one day on two…morsels of…lumber.” The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

“He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”

“He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”

“He nice, the Jesus.”

“He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.”

Part of the problem had to do with vocabulary. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as “to give of yourself your only begotten son.” Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.

“Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian…explained. “One too may eat of the chocolate.[i]

“Nothing we said was of any help to the Moroccan student. A dead man with long hair supposedly living with her father, a leg of lamb served with palm fronds and chocolate; equally confused and disgusted, she shrugged her shoulders and turned her attention back to the comic book she kept hidden beneath her binder.[ii]

I think sometimes we Unitarian Universalists, especially those of us brought up unchurched or in non-Christian traditions can feel a bit like that Moroccan student. Even if we are steeped in Christian interpretations of the holiday, we don’t necessarily understand why we are dying a bunch of eggs. How can we Unitarian Universalists make sense of it all, to apply our free and responsible search for truth and meaning this day of days going beyond the obvious “glad winter is over!” and a rationalization to eat chocolate? By looking at a few of the symbols of the holiday, I hope we’ll be able to answer more confidently Eugene Navias’ question, “Who is to say for us what Easter is that we [religious liberals, science-believing skeptics] should celebrate this day and sing for joy?”

Let’s begin with the egg. Patricia Montley tells us:

“The egg—that miracle of life—is one of the oldest symbols of creation, associated with images of that primordial creator, the ancient Bird Goddess, whose Neolithic images archeologists discovered in Old Europe. She supplied both the water that fell from the sky and the water that came from below the ground. Because the fetus comes to life in the waters of the womb, ‘the egg and egg-shaped womb are both images of the beginning of life,[iii]’ ….Thus the cosmic egg contains the universe in embryo. [iv]”Think about that the next time you crack an egg!

Montley describes egg-related customs in a variety of ancient cultures: dying them red like the dawn sky “which gives birth to the sun, which makes all life possible. The custom of putting eggs in or on graves—practiced by Egyptians as well as pagan Greeks and Anglo-Saxons—indicated their power to ensure rebirth into eternal life. Ancient Egyptians and Romans exchanged gifts of eggs at the Spring Equinox.[v]

And what of our friend, Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail? Rabbits are well known for their fecundity—one female can produce as many as six hundred offspring in her lifetime[vi]—and therefore are associated with the ancient German spring fertility goddess Ostara. Ostara—yes, that is where the word “Easter” comes from—Ostara’s feast was celebrated at the full moon following the Spring Equinox. She is often depicted crowned with spring flowers, “holding the cosmic egg in her hand, mindful of the frolicking hares at her feet and the joyful birds flying above her head.[vii]” The lily, or any flower blossoming in the spring is a much more obvious symbol of spring and rebirth. “Easter is winter promising to spring/that earth shall yield its death to life again:/It is the growth promise of the dormant seed/the barren meadow and the naked bough.[viii]

The symbolic meaning of Easter ham is mysterious—I found multiple explanations from the commemoration of the death by wild boar of a Babylonian, Greek, and Roman deities (all of whom were revived in various ways, permanently or temporarily/seasonally); to honoring Demeter, the grain goddess, by their sacrifice. A more mundane explanation in the modern era is that ham was a cheaper, more readily available substitute for lamb for North American immigrants. The lamb, of course, is symbolic of spring—it’s a baby animal, after all. According to the Hebrew Bible, the Jews in Egypt used the blood from sacrificed lambs to mark their doorways that God would spare their firstborn. And so lamb is a meaningful part of the Passover feast. For Christians, lamb is a symbol of Jesus, “sacrificed” by God and then resurrected.

Fecundity, birth, life, rebirth, renewal: These are meanings we Unitarian Universalists can and do delve into with gusto—“love and praise and thanksgiving” for spring, for new beginnings, for fresh starts. We can and do think about and invest time and energy in caring for the earth, doing a thorough spring cleaning, trying new spiritual practices, and more. But there is another recognizable thread of commonality among the many complicated and divergent meanings to the symbols of the season—liberation from death, whether literal or figurative.

So let us think about one more symbol of the season: the cross. In his fascinating book, A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses, S. Brent Plate tells us that “Crosses are cosmic. They are visible points of focus that unlock deeper, often invisible forces…. The cross is a piece of technology that provides a bridge and allows connection. Through that association comes transformation. [ix]

“The image of the cross as the meeting of two lines, situated, suspended, or otherwise located between the heavens and earth, between life and death, between masculine and feminine, between infancy and adulthood, weaves its way across ancient and modern traditions. Its basic visual appearance becomes the grid work on which reality is built.[x]

He goes on to explain the many meanings of the cross over time and in cultures the world over: marking the four directions, four elements, four seasons…and of course the symbol of Christianity itself. Plate reminds us that “crosses have multiple meanings and functions across Christian traditions, and their symbolic value does not readily stay still.[x]” This is a critical point to remember, but for us this morning, I’d like for us to think about a couple of the most common meanings of the Easter cross or crucifix: sacrifice and salvation. What can sacrifice and salvation mean for liberal religious folks?

Well, lots of things, obviously, but to look to just one of our contemporary thinkers, Tom Owen-Towle, tells us “Unitarian Universalist theology, at its most mature, would have us acknowledge our sinfulness—which he defines as “intentionally or unintentionally wrong[ing] ourselves, others, our universe[xi]” —without wallowing in it. We sin, both personally and socially, but we’re ever more than our sins. Sin is neither the first nor the last nor the only word about us, but merely one important word about our histories, and such recognition and ownership frees us.[xii]

There is an important element of liberation in this concept of acknowledgement of sinfulness—in humility, and in acting on it—making amends that is intrinsic to our liberal faith. As Owen-Towle puts it, “As moral beings, as accountable creatures, we want things to matter, we want our specific days and nights to make a difference. We want to make amends, start over, and become whole. For us that process is called “salvation.” It’s best done, or at least started, right on earth rather than waiting for some presumed “judgment day.”[xiii]

Owen-Towle goes on to encourage us to “take a fresher look at the concept of repentance, the bridge between sin and salvation.” Here he uses the twelve-step recovery understanding of repentance—not the hair shirt, guilt-focused view, but “a fearless moral inventory, to admit where we’re wrong, and to make amends whenever possible[xiv]….We must reform, grow, turn around daily. We must be spiritually prepared to die this very day.[xv]

We might think of this as a spring cleaning for the soul—a renewal, based in actions we take to make amends, to seek and give forgiveness. This kind of in this world salvation is not easy, it demands self-awareness and humility, time, effort and determination. It requires the sacrifice of the ego, the ability to say, I was/am wrong. I’m sorry. And of course, this doesn’t only apply to us as individuals, but as a community, and society. Last Sunday, members of the CUF Racial Justice Group talked about the inner and outer work of recognizing and dismantling white privilege. Doing that work is an attempt at making amends for the salvation of our country. We can apply a fearless moral inventory to our personal interactions with family members, friends, neighbors, fellow congregants, co-workers, strangers, as a congregation we can do the same inventory for our relationships with other faith-based and community groups, visitors, etc. We can renew our commitment to Welcoming Congregation. We can apply a fearless moral inventory to our personal interactions with animals, to our relationship with natural resources, the interdependent web. And we can do the same as a congregation—we can renew our commitment to Green Sanctuary.

Fellow spiritual seekers, may we look upon the symbols of this season with wonder, joy, and humility. May we seek liberation from winter stasis, and from the guilt of wrongs we have committed. May we celebrate Easter as rebirth of the earth, and the rebirth that comes with repentance. Alleluia!


[i] Sedaris, David. 2000. Me Talk Pretty One Day. Little, Brown & Co. p. 177.

[ii] Ibid., p. 179.

[iii] Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford, 1991. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London: Arkana Penguin Books. Cited in Montley, p. 105.

[iv] Montley, Patricia. 2005. In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth. Boston: Skinner House Books, p. 105-6.

[v] Ibid, p. 106.

[vi] Ibid., p. 105.

[vii] Ibid., p108.

[viii] Navias, Eugene. nd. “Easter is Promises.” Unpublished poem.

[ix] Plate, S. Brent. 2014. A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 140.

[x] Ibid., p. 144.

[xi] Owen-Towle, Tom. 2011. Theology Ablaze. San Diego: Flaming Chalice Press, p. 217.

[xii] Ibid., 218.

[xiii] Ibid., 219.

[xiv] Ibid., 220.

[xv] Ibid., 221.