Saturday, 31 March 2018

A Quaker Easter Part 2: Meaning

Photograph of a statue depicting Judas kissing Jesus.
In yesterday's post, I looked at the role the celebrating or otherwise marking Easter might have within Quaker communities, and in terms of a Quaker community's relationship with the community in which it is situated. Today, I will continue the exploration of Easter, but on a more spiritual note. I will look at the story/stories behind Easter, its history, and what meaning we might take from it.
As I have explained previously, I think this is important for Quakers. This is because, where we observe the traditional testimony concerning times and seasons at all, we tend to only remember half of it. No day is more holy, or more significant than another, which is important. However, the early Friends did not reject the lessons and meaning of holy days, just their fastening to a particular day. The same argument applies to liturgical seasons. Thus, it would be taught that we do not observe Easter, or other holidays, but that we should remember the lessons and meaning of Easter all through the year.
Now, of course, with the cultural pervasiveness of many holidays, it is (in my experience) a rare Quaker that refuses any observance of the holidays at all, yet I see little deep engagement with the meanings of these festivals, whether at that time of the year or otherwise.
Those who know me, but have not read my earlier posts concerning times and seasons, might wonder why I have developed a sudden focus on Christian holy days. There is no need to worry about any sudden personality change; my point is that the lessons and meaning of these festivals, these stories, are there regardless of your belief in the underlying faith. Different, perhaps, but then the meaning is in many ways different for us all. I think the same is true of Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim holidays, neopagan festivals, and stories that are not associated with a time of year. However, growing up in England at the time I did, Christian festivals are those I know best (though we did cover Hindu Diwali repeatedly when I was in primary school in a very culturally diverse area – it's a very interesting story in itself). I'd love to cover other holidays, if I can find appropriate collaborators.
So, that's the potted background – now on with Easter!
I would be surprised if the vast majority of my readers weren't familiar with the story of Easter. At least the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are very pervasive in the the English-speaking world, and indeed in the European-derived cultures around the world generally. The overall story of Holy Week will be fairly well-known, as well. It is a remarkably rich and nuanced story, with many elements from which we can draw meaning.
First in most people's understanding seems to be the death and resurrection of Christ, with its cargo of substitutionary atonement. Christ died for all of our sins, and was resurrected in evidence of his divinity, and as a sign for the resurrection that awaits the faithful. This is a powerful meaning, to be sure, and one that can be appreciated without belief in the specific religious significance of it. It is a story that I would appreciate and see great meaning in were I to find it in a work of modern fiction – even if it were not a transparent allegory for the Christian story (for example, see the death and resurrection of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Any western writer featuring a death for the good of others followed by a resurrection if prone to being seen as such an allegory, thanks to the pervasiveness of this story, though I'm not sure I always see it that way myself.
One of my favourite fictional settings is Elizabeth Moon's “Paksworld”, the term referring to the setting introduced in her seminal work, The Deed of Paksennarion. It is an epic fantasy novel in three parts, in a relatively Tolkienesque fantasy world, but most of the details are not relevant here. The main religion featured in the original trilogy is the “Fellowship of Gird”, one of several faiths revering a chief god, the High Lord, by way of a saint, a human who lived a particularly – though not exclusively – virtuous life, doing great deeds, who now serves the High Lord as the figurehead of a faith community, able to work miracles in the world through their followers. A prequel, Surrender None, dealt with the life of Gird, how he came to be a leader, and how the High Lord blessed him – and somewhat directed him – during that life. At the end of his life, strife is brewing more than ever between the two groups of people that he hoped to bring together in peace and harmony, and the High Lord gives it to Gird to be the channel of a great miracle, to remove that ill-feeling, if only for a time. The working of this miracle kills him, as he knows it will as he allows it to happen.
Some would see Gird as a Christ-figure, but I cannot see it in the same way as the death and resurrection of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia. In that case, we can be quite sure of its nature as an allegory for the final elements of the Passion – not only because of the heavy cues in the text itself, but because the author confirmed it. In the case of Gird, I am aware that those who want to only read fiction with a Christian message have engaged in some degree of debate about the validity of Gird as a Christ-figure – and indeed similarly regarding Paksenarrion, the central figure of The Deed. They seem to be undecided, and without confirmation from the author I cannot see them as similar enough to be a clear allegory. The themes of redemption, universal love, sacrifice and life after death (no bodily resurrection occurs, after all) are not that specific to the Christian story. However, I am quite happy for others to read those parallels into the story. That's the beautiful thing about stories – they are always co-productions between the originator and each individual who receives them.
But enough about allegory in literature. The point there is simply that this story is so pervasive that it comes up everywhere, and that we tend to see it even when it's not quite there; the themes are present without necessarily being allegory. Which is to say, however pervasive the story might be, at least some of the key themes are even more pervasive. Osiris was killed out of jealousy, and restored to life (albeit temporarily), then went on to rule the world of the dead. Odin was hanged from a tree, wounded with a spear, and (arguably) died, in order to attain the wisdom with which he is associated – to be used for the good of the world as a whole. Dionysus was killed either before birth or in infancy, but was restored – this rebirth being important in some cult activities in the ancient world. The idea of the death of one, often a ruler, to take the place of an entire people or nation has old roots, with such sacrifices of rulers known in various ancient cultures; natural discomfort at this idea may have been a factor in the development of various animal sacrifice practices.
Thus the Easter story, and the concept of the redemption of humanity through the (temporary) death of Christ, is both a highly specific story, vitally important to the Christian tradition, and part of a pattern that exists across a wide range of space and time. Inasmuch as we can judge from modern beliefs, however, it was quite alien to the Jewish context of the time; atonement for modern Jews is, as far as I have determined in my own reading, a highly personal thing, expiation for sins to make things right between the individual and God. That said, there are elements of the Talmud and the Tanakh that could be taken to indicate the idea of one standing for many when it comes to retribution.
Thus the resurrection was proof of Jesus's divinity, and his death atonement for the sins of the world (while not all Christian sects have always subscribed to substitutionary atonement, it is overwhelmingly the common conception today – though still not universal). Just who qualifies for the benefit of this atonement is a matter of more disagreement of course, and is best left as a subject for another day.
The part of the story of most interest to me, however, must be the matter of Judas Iscariot. Judas betrayed Jesus to the authorities, taking payment to let them know when he would be alone and vulnerable. In English at least, his name has become a byword for the most vicious sorts of betrayal. He is also one of the greatest points of apparently contradictory diversion in the Gospels, with extremely varied accounts of the details of the betrayal, his motivation in so doing, and his fate after the Crucifixion. One account has him betraying Jesus due to the devil “entering into him”, while others suggest dissatisfaction with the course taken by Jesus and his followers.
One thing is clear, however. Jesus knew he would be betrayed, broadly in what manner, and by whom. He did not try to resist it. This is consistent with it all being in line with the divine plan. It was necessary that Judas, or one of the 12, betray Jesus. Casting Judas as a villain seems to me somewhat unfair. If his actions were simply in furtherance of divine necessity, then he also sacrificed. Jesus sacrificed his mortal life; Judas sacrificed his honour and his good name. Both were necessary to the fulfilment of Christ.
This, to me, is a key example of the role of the Easter story for the modern liberal Quaker, be they Christian or not. Stories are conveyors of meaning, but they are also prompts for thought. In this story, as in all others, we must seek to see beyond the meanings that are widely accepted. By thinking on them with our hearts open to the Spirit, we may find the Light illuminating in us a new insight – not necessarily novel or original, but new for us. It does not even matter whether we have come across that insight before. When it is opened in us by the Divine, or indeed when we reach it for ourself by other means (though I find the spirit-led insight more effective), it is made whole and real in a us in a way that simply receiving it as a lesson cannot achieve.
At Easter, or at any other time of year you choose to do so, you might dwell on this story, bring both reason and Light to bear on it, and see what insights you might find.
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