Ancient Myths, New Life
Our spiritual tradition emerged from of Protestant Christianity but we no longer follow its biblical theology.
So while the United Church is proclaiming joyously that Christ is Risen, perhaps this service on Easter Sunday should be advertised with the words: “Come celebrate with us. We don’t know what happened.”
Easter is a tricky theological event for Unitarian Universalists. Even for those of us who experience the presence of God, It’s hard to accept that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven having died for human sin so that we may all have eternal life.
I can accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but not his divinity as the son of God.
Celebrating his birth at Christmas is one thing – after all every night a child is born is a holy night – but it is much more difficult for me to understand the veneration of his death.
With our fifth source of wisdom calling us to heed science and reason, I don’t accept the resurrection as historical fact. The gospels were written decades after his death. They aren’t eye witness accounts. The earliest gospel in its original form – the gospel of Mark – says nothing about Jesus returning and being seen by his disciples.
I struggle with the bible as a historical document, but as a collection of mythic stories it offers wisdom into the human condition.
It has been said that “the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.” (Antony de Mello).
Stories give us a way to reveal deeper truths, ones that are hard to express in facts: what it means to love someone, how life is both searingly painful and wonderful at the same time, the fear of death.
These things we tell sideways – through poetry, through story.
The story of Jesus on the cross and what happens next is a grand tale of death and resurrection, divine miracle and the very human need for hope. But it tells us more about humanity’s lament about the finality of death than about what happened that long ago day in Jerusalem.
Easter mythology is an old tale told in a new way. A very old tale indeed.
Rev. Kendyll Gibbons writes: “Spring in Minnesota is an act of faith. Easter comes, whether or not the climate around us has noticed, Whether or not the sun has fully struck through the last of the winter’s chill.
Every year it varies; the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. You have to know that this is a pagan holiday, with a little bit of Christianity grafted on; Who would celebrate an historical anniversary according to such an esoteric lunar calculation? The very name of the day is pagan.”
Gibbons is right. The Easter story evolved from even older myths from even older civilizations that surround the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Stories of death and resurrection has been told all over the Middle East and Northern Africa in all sorts of variations for over 6,000 years.
These are stories of love and death, of fertility and fallowness. Stories of spring.
One of the earliest variations of the story is about Ishtar, the Babylonian Goddess of war and fertility and Tammuz, her son or her husband –the translations differ.
Tammuz is badly injured by a boar when out hunting. He ends up in the underworld, not dead, but spellbound in a sleep.
Ishtar laments: Him of the plains – why have they slain? The shepherd, the wise one. The man of sorrows, why have they slain him?
Grief-stricken, Ishtar goes to find Tammuz in the underworld. Ishtar goes through various trials to reach Tammuz down in the depths. She spends three days underground and during this time, the world above falls asleep, nothing grows.
Ishtar awakens Tammuz and when they return to the world, fertility returns. The earth awakens.
The Gods and Goddesses personify forces of Nature, their actions shape the world as they fight and love, betray and reunite. A grand drama played out across the sky and the land.
Each spring, the Babylonians ritually re-enacted the story of Ishtar and Tammuz. The ritual honours the fertility of the land, the god dies so the grain may grow.
Life ends so that life may begin again.
The death of Tammuz was told as an act of worship, as an act of respect for the earth.
Centuries later, the Egyptians also shared myths of Gods dying and being reborn. Isis, who was the great mother goddess, had a husband Osiris, who was seen as the first King of Egypt and the bringer of civilization.
Osiris is trapped and killed by his brother Seth, who is jealous of his virtue.
Isis searches everywhere for Osiris and finds parts of his body scattered all over the land. Through many adventures she brings his body back together. In one of her forms, Isis has wings. She fans them over the reassembled body. Osiris is revived.
Isis says: Osiris! You went away, but you have returned, you fell asleep, but you have awakened, you died, but you live again.
But Osiris doesn’t return to life in the world. Instead he becomes Ruler of Eternity, he lives in the underworld and judges the souls of the dead. Isis stays in the world and gives birth to their son Horus.
Life ends so that life may begin again.
These are powerful stories from a time when people believed the Gods and Goddesses were manifest in creation, expressed in the seasons.
In spring, the Nile River rises, swollen with the tears of Isis, as she mourns Osiris. As the waters restore the parched fields, Osiris is revived in the greening plants.
Life and death, fertility and fallowness, are all mixed up together.
Life ends so that life may begin again.
What I find interesting about the story of Jesus in his final days is how it both echoes and challenges the older myths of Babylon and Egypt. The earlier stories are about Gods and Goddesses – not people, but Jesus is a person as well as the son of God.
His story becomes the human story. Like Osiris, Jesus is betrayed. He is crucified, hung on a wooden cross to die, a common form of execution in his time. After his lonely death, his body is placed into a tomb and it is sealed by a rock rolled across the entrance.
Three days later, women go to the tomb to care for the body. When they get there the rock has been moved, the tomb is open, and it is empty. The women weep in shock, and an angel appears to tell them that Jesus has risen.
This is where the original gospel of Mark ends. Jesus has risen, but this remark isn’t explained.
The story of Jesus mixes myth into history.
It’s a fascinating blend of new theologies and old images, shifting the old myths of the Gods into the new religion of the One God. The gospels are rich with historical detail while asserting this new mythic way to understand humanity and the divine.
Death and resurrection still happen in the spring, but the story of Christ isn’t related to the changes in the land.
His story isn’t about the Gods embodying the cycle of nature. Of life ending and life beginning.
His story is about how people die and are reborn, about our relationship with one all-powerful God, a God that is beyond nature, indeed, this a God that can confound the cycles of life and death.
It’s now life never ending.
With the death of Jesus humans no longer die. Christians are promised eternal life in heaven. It’s a paradigm shift.
The idea of everlasting life is appealing. While I can intellectually accept that Death is a necessary part of life, it is not so easy to accept in my heart.
Many of us have loved ones we miss dearly, that we long to be reunited with. The thought of being together again is a great comfort. It lessens the pain of loss.
And wanting life – your life – to continue on is understandable. To believe my life in some way will be unending sounds wonderful. But I don’t know if this is possible.
Truly, we don’t know anything about what happens after death. It is the last “great adventure.” It’s the mystery that all of us, every being, will meet one day.
All we can do is live here on this earth right now. And live as well as we can in the face of inevitable death.
In the end, the older myths appeal to me more, the ones that don’t offer me hope of my own everlasting life, but point to a harder truth that life goes on even when I will not.
The daffodils of this year are not the same daffodils as last year. The old makes way for the new, it is that never ending transition that makes life precious.
We are all temporary beings. Life ends so that life may begin again. Life as a whole renews endlessly.
Ishtar returns from the underworld and the earth reawakens. Osiris is torn apart but is knit back together. Jesus is born and dies yet lives on in people’s hearts.
I take comfort in knowing that when I die, babies will keep on being born. Winter will end as it always ends. Life will spring forth as it always does.
In a way I feel relieved that while I can do my small part to live well, that is all I have to do. I’m not responsible for the sun rising or the snow melting, just my own small part of this time and this place.
Life carries on, with or without us.
While the ancient myths speak to the reality of death, they also highlight the fallow periods of life, reminding us that they provide the fertile ground for new life.
We might enter the underworld many times during our lives, but we can emerge restored. One moment it seems like the snow will never go away, the trees and the earth are a uniform dirty grey, and then one morning there are purple crocus’ blooming.
The grass is growing bright green. The cardinals are singing lustily. Life is back!
We too can be brought back to life. We might have a time of sleeping, of darkness, but the planet continues to turn and we awaken. We feel forsaken and then forge new connections. We find a new path and start walking. Resurrection!
This is not easy, it takes emotional strength. And it’s a messy process.
Spring is an ugly time of year. The earth looks hung over. In my garden, broken branches and scattered leaves are remnants of the stormy winter. But the green shoots of the tulips are already bursting forth. I just have to help by cleaning up a little.
And life will burst forth, even if I don’t clean up the broken branches. It might be a little messier, but the green grass grows again.
There are times when for three days or three months or three years we live suspended, not knowing whether we are truly alive.
These are times which can be incredibly lonely, when it is so hard to connect to others, so hard to connect to our own spirits. We can become so isolated in pride and fear of telling others about the fallow periods. Yet the ancient myths remind us that we aren’t in this alone, even when we think we are.
Jesus cried out, believing himself forsaken by God. But He was not.
Osiris was in pieces, but Isis put him back together.
Tammuz was alone in the underworld, but Ishtar came for him.
Even the Gods needed help sometimes!
These myths remind us that we are not alone. We all belong somewhere, to someone, to something. We all belong to this grand drama of life on earth.
We can all be brought back to life, through the strength and support of others, through love, through kindness. We might need to get out the rake and make the first move, or even the second or third moves, but life will respond.
The wagging of a dog’s tail. The kindness of a stranger. The patient support of a loved one. Any small moment might be the beginning of hope. And in the next breeze we can feel that spring is in the air.
We can begin again.
We are not alone, even in the worst depths of despair, someone is looking out for us, whether we know it or not.
Let us be grateful for those that love us and care for us. Let us be grateful this spring morning for all the kindness and compassion that surrounds us, even when we can’t quite feel that support.
Let us be grateful for ancient myths that reveal deep truths. That remind us that we are part of the cycle of life and death, that despite the broken branches and scattered leaves, spring blooms once more.
As we celebrate life renewing, knowing that spring returns year after year, let our hearts be glad and grateful.
Let us remember that we too can be renewed.
So Say We All.
The Myth of the Goddess. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford.
The Pagan Christ. Tom Harpur