Monday, March 22, 2010

The Hidden Meaning of Easter

“Death is not the opposite of life. The opposite of death is birth. Life has no opposite.” -- Eckhart Tolle

Lately I’ve been trying to grow cilantro. Having an inexpensive and unending supply of the versatile herb is very appealing to me. But it happens every time. As soon as there are enough leaves for one good harvest the plant goes to seed, shooting up a thick leafless seed stalk. Cilantro doesn’t seem too concerned with what I want, or its own survival for that matter. All it cares about is the next generation. Its sole purpose seems to be to produce seeds, then promptly die. The fresh, pungent leaves that perfect my guacamole and chicken pad thai seem an incidental side effect.

Out on the patio, bent over another failed planter box of cilantro on a radiant spring morning, I can’t help but ponder the circling spiral of birth and death framed by the one changeless constant – forms may come and go but Life itself is eternal.

In world mythology and religion there is a long-standing tradition of drawing images and metaphors, and indeed entire theological scenarios from the world of nature. For Laozi the Dao is like water or a tender blade of grass. For Krishna, Brahman is like the sea that never imposes its own shape but takes on the shape of the shore as its own. For Jesus, God’s love is like rain, the Kingdom Heaven is like seeds, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches and by our fruit we shall be known. Jesus knew how to talk to farmers, even disheartened backyard cilantro farmers.

Every year in the spring billions of Christians all over the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Many believe it was a literal event – that Jesus actually came back from the dead. For others, the story is a metaphor signifying the undying nature of Spirit. Either way, Easter signifies the triumph of life over death, a theme ancient agricultural people would have no trouble understanding.

Even a cursory glance at the world’s mythological and religious traditions reveals the widespread presence of the dying god motif, the archetypal tale of the gift-giving god whose sacrificial death brings rain or corn or eternal life. From Osiris to Quetzalcoatl to Odin to Attis to Dionysus to Jesus the god must die, often hung from a tree and then buried in the ground, planted like a seed only to rise again. The loss becomes a gain. The seed becomes grain for the bread of life. Sacrificial death, initially seen as an act of destruction, becomes an act of creation. As old forms dissolve, new forms arise. The tomb becomes a womb.

It is no accident that the dying god motif originated in early agricultural societies. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that early farming cultures, bound by the seasons, would recognize the cyclical nature of birth and death. Seeds are the source of new life and it is only in the death stage that plants produce seeds. Life comes only from death and from no where else. It becomes clear that death and birth are simply two points on a circle. The yin-yang symbol, the archetypal image of the snake eating its own tail as well as the mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism, Navajo sand painting and Jungian psychology all illustrate the universal awareness of this essential principle.

Also prevalent in early agricultural societies is the archetype of the Mother Goddess. Intimate with the generative energies of the earth, early farmers began to characterize the earth’s powers as feminine. Like mother earth, human mothers give life out of their own bodies and then sustain and nourish that life from their own bodies. The alignment of the twenty eight day lunar cycle and the twenty eight day menstrual cycle further concretizes this primal symmetry.

It is the Mother Goddess who ushers us into the world of forms. Every human being who ever walked the earth emerged from the body of a woman. From the goddess we come and to the goddess we return. The burial ritual is clearly a carry-over from this ancient realization. The dead, in burial, are taken back into the body of the earth-mother like seeds, completing the circle and thus overcoming the apparent finality of death. Circles, by definition, have no beginning and no end. As Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “there never was a time when you did not exist, nor will there ever be a time when you cease to exist.” Rebirth is not only suggested by the burial rite; it is assured, at least in the minds of its participants.

Since it is the Goddess so to speak that gave birth to us all, it should come as no surprise that gods too have mothers. The Mother Goddess sends forth her son, the dying god, as a willing sacrifice – a short-lived spark from the eternal realm bringing light into the darkness of the world. This fundamental narrative is repeated all over the world on every continent and in every mythology. Some dying gods, like Odin, Dionysus and Jesus are hung on trees (or manmade structures resembling trees like crosses) before they are buried underground or journey to the underworld. Jesus goes into the tomb for three days, the same length of time Jonah was in the belly of the great fish. Three days is also the length of time the moon is dark before beginning its journey back to fullness. Astronomical and physiological analogies abound. To modern people perpetually insulated from the night sky by their well-lit homes this may seem merely curious or even insignificant. To ancient people living under the stars for tens of thousands of years these alignments were as real as the night was long.

Central to the dying god motif is the theme of generative sacrifice. The death or suffering of the god always results in tremendous benefit to the world at large. In explicit violation of Zeus’s wishes Prometheus steals fire from Mt. Olympus and gives it to humankind, enraging Zeus and earning himself a horrible punishment. For all eternity Prometheus must remain chained to a rock while his liver is ripped from his body by vultures, only to grow back overnight with the whole process commencing anew in the morning. Talk about sacrifice. If given the chance to do it all over again, even with his infinite suffering, Prometheus wouldn’t change a thing. That’s just what gods do. And he isn’t the only one. Gods all over the world gave their lives in order that we might have corn or fire or everlasting life. Native American mythology is particularly rich with the theme of the gift-giving god who relinquishes his form yet somehow lives on.

In his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow recounts an Ojibwe myth about the hero Wunzh (who Longfellow called Hiawatha). In the tale, Wunzh embarks on a heroic quest with all the requisite elements – hardship, danger, struggle, prayer and visions followed by electrifying encounters with monsters and magical beings. Just another day at the office, right? As Wunzh grows weaker and weaker he is approached by a mysterious figure called Mondamin, a youth “dressed in garments green and yellow…plumes of green bent o’er his forhead and his hair was soft and golden.” Mondamin is, naturally, a personification of corn, the primary food source and sacred substance of numerous Native American peoples. But Mondamin doesn’t just hand himself over. Wunzh is going to have to fight for it.

In a luminous Great Lakes twilight, Mondamin challenges Wunzh to a wrestling match. Weak from fasting, Wunzh agrees and the two grapple and fall to the dusty ground in a twisting, flailing embrace. Somehow, just touching Mondamin fills Wunzh with a renewed strength. For three sunsets they wrestle and struggle, Wunzh growing stronger and stronger with each encounter. On the third night, Mondamin congratulates Wunzh for his courage, conviction, purity of mind and perseverance. Then he makes a startling offer. When I return tomorrow evening, Mondamin tells Wunzh, you will kill me, and when you do, you must bury me in the ground and protect my grave from all disturbances. On the fourth night, just as Mondamin predicted, Wunzh prevails and buries the lifeless body of Mondamin as instructed. Soon, small green shoots of tender corn begin to peek from the ground.

Mondamin’s “death” was a self-directed, willing act of sacrifice that not only saved Wunzh from imminent starvation; it gave the Ojibwe their primary food as well as the central object of their ritual life. It isn’t lost on any of us that the very marrow of our life is won only through struggle, and yet the persistent vision remains that we live not in a hostile universe but in a profoundly nurturing and cooperative one. On the surface – struggle and scarcity. Beneath the surface – endless abundance, infinite creativity and a deep, resounding harmony.

In the Jesus story we see an amalgam of all these elements – the willing and self-directed sacrifice, the death and resurrection, the bringing of gifts and the presence of a divine order beneath the vale of tears.

But there is still a deeper layer yet to be uncovered.

What if the story of Jesus isn’t about Jesus at all?

To re-cast a famous Joseph Campbell saying, what if each of us is the dying god of our own lives? What riches are uncovered if we read the dying god stories not as literal, historical events but as metaphors for our own evolution from material, biological beings bound by instinctual conditioning into spiritual beings of awakened consciousness? Is it any wonder then that the dying god is so often born of a virgin or through some other non-biological process? Horus was conceived as his mother Isis hovered in the form of a hawk over the dead body of her husband Osiris. Mithra was born spontaneously from a rock. Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, Jesus, Quetzalcoatl and many others were born of virgins. The hero, the gift-giver and the dying god live and have their being in higher consciousness, not in the lower realms of ego, competition and conflict. In the Gospel of John, when Nicodemus asks for Jesus’ advice, Jesus simply says, “you must be born from above.” In other words, each of us must shift from lower consciousness to the higher plane of God-consciousness within. The virgin birth signifies that each of us, at the level of our divine essence, was not born from the union of sperm and egg but are identical and unified with the eternally Real, what Krishna called “the unborn” and what Jesus called “everlasting life”. Shifting out of body and ego identification is the work of every spiritual tradition.

If the purpose of myth is to teach us how to live our own lives, then what have we learned?

In Buddhism the central metaphor is that of awakening from the sleep of ignorance, suffering and conditioning. In Christianity the central metaphor is death and rebirth, coming out of our animal nature with its instinctual drives of acquisition and conflict and rising into the unitive experience of God-consciousness, transcending all boundaries and limitations. Resurrection is transformation. Rebirth signifies death to the ego, to limitation, to space and time. Rising from the “grave” of our lower nature embodies the realization of awakening.

Beneath the crests and troughs of the ocean’s waves lies an immense stillness, a stillness that is both the source of the waves and their destination. Is it not true that we “die” every night? Were it not for sleep, this cyclical, recurring “death”, this immersion into the sea of unconsciousness, our life would cease. Just as the silence between notes makes music possible, so too the empty formlessness of the Void makes possible the vibrant fullness of our conscious, waking life. In the end, the inner and the outer are the same. The surface mirrors the depth. The tomb is a womb. Nirvana is samsara, and the kingdom of heaven is lying all around us, only we do not see it. Not only is there a correspondence, there is an identity. Life, in essence, is synonymous with the eternal Ground of Being, the Real, what we in the west call God, and as such it is ultimately untouched by death. “Death is not the opposite of life,” Eckhart Tolle writes in Stillness Speaks. “The opposite of death is birth. Life has no opposite.” Despite centuries of theological calcification it is still possible for us to exhume the universal spiritual wisdom of the Christian story, that each of us is the presence of God-consciousness in the field of forms. Only, as Buddha pointed out, we don’t know it. Like the sun breaking over the horizon at countless sunrise services throughout Christendom this Easter, we too are gradually dawning to the truth of our divine nature. Dare to say it out loud. Let your sun rise. Let the wisdom within you shape your thoughts and words and actions. Become, finally, who you really are. This is the hidden meaning of Easter.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Unity Magazine