Term I, 2010 has again been short and intense. There seems to have been so much to do and so little time to do it. This is because the timing of the break between first and second term is determined by the dating of the Christian festival of Easter, which like the nearly concurrent Jewish festival of Passover, is a lunar observance fixed by the first full moon after the vernal or spring equinox, the 21 March, the day of equal darkness and light.
From time immemorial the equinox, the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, has been marked by religious folk festivals, like the Ostara, celebrating the rebirth of the world after the death of winter, hence the Easter symbolism of eggs, chickens, rabbits and flowers. The word Easter itself derives from an old European word for egg, and the hatching of the egg was seen in a variety of ancient cultures, as a profound metaphor for creation and new life.
Traditional spring festivals were also fertility festivals and the rites of spring and the corn god, celebrated the creative mysteries of sexuality and reproduction—often in very explicit ways—in the human, animal and plant worlds and the rabbit was regarded in some cultures, perhaps because of its awesome reproductive prowess, as an especially powerful symbol.
In northern Europe, the seasons are much more clearly defined than they are in most parts of Australia and the coming of spring much more dramatic. One day everything seems to be dead, the next the snowdrops and crocuses start coming through the snow. Typical of the folk narratives which focused on this phenomenon was the ancient Greek myth cycle in which Demeter, goddess of the corn, brought her daughter Persephone, the spring, back from the captivity of Hades, the lord of the dead, so that the earth could live once more. This exactly matched their experience of renewal of life in the natural world.
But for Jews and Christians, the ancient spring festival took on a much more specific significance and this is what lies at the heart of the western celebration of Easter. After winter there is always spring. Out of all our deaths, there is always life.
For Jewish people, this time of year focuses on Passover (Pesach), perhaps the most important of all the many holy days of the Jewish year. At Passover they not only remember but relive, the liberation of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, under the great prophet and law giver Moses, 3500 years ago. This is the great founding event of Jewish faith and identity, a celebration and affirmation of liberation and of hope. No matter how often we are knocked down, we will get up again and go on. And this is the hope filled Jewish view of the meaning of all their national and religious history—and that history has often been a very hard and tragic history. Even though the vine is cut down and the very stump burnt, it will shoot and blossom and bear fruit again. And always, always, next year, next year in Jerusalem.
And this Jewish faith is the direct ancestor of and an integral part of Christian faith. Passover is the birth time of Christian tradition and identity—the death and resurrection of its founder, the Jewish prophet Jesus of Nazareth. And like Passover, Easter is also a celebration of hope and liberation. The good may be knocked down, even killed, but it is never ultimately destroyed. Goodness overcomes evil, hope overcomes despair, love overcomes hatred, life overcomes death. No matter what happens we shall overcome.
For forty days before Easter Christians observe the fast of Lent, a period of reflection and penitence, beginning with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday and culminating in the desolation of Good Friday and the way of the cross. And then some time in the darkness, about midnight on Easter Saturday, a small fire is struck and the great Paschal candle is lit and then more and more candles and suddenly the lights blaze up and amid flowers and clouds of incense, the bells begin to ring and for the first time in forty days Gloria in Excelsis Deo is sung—and the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.
In 1985, I was on study leave in England and on the way to the university, I used to short-cut through an old church yard. In the spring, it was full of flowers and I remember one morning passing a grave and out of this grave, was growing a spectacular profusion of daffodils. And on the stone were the well known words of Jesus in John’s gospel: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live and he who lives and believes in me, shall never die.’
The Easter holiday is a time to take a much needed rest from work and day to day activities and find some time for reflection and recreation so that we can come back refreshed and take up the eternal task of going forward to meet the future. Whether we have a specific religious commitment or not or belong to other faith traditions, we can all celebrate transcendent freedom, we can all affirm that love and hope and goodness are fundamental and intrinsic to the human condition, that despite all the failures and disappointments and losses, (the little deaths of our lives), we can overcome and live and go on again.
I think this is what Gerard Manley Hopkins, the first of the great modern poets was getting at, when he wrote his famous sonnet, God’s Grandeur.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black west went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and ah!
Mr A Dale