(Cover image for this post is “And He Rose: The Resurrection” by Vincent Barzoni.)
Note: When I use the terms “univeralist” and “universalism,” I’m talking about the concept of underlying themes or principles that all religions share in common, and the idea that these common themes are more important than surface-level differences. This is not to be confused with Unitarian Universalism, which is an organized religion that incorporates universalism with a lowercase “u” as one of their main beliefs. Both are really cool, but I’m talking specifically about the philosophical/theological concept today.
April is a busy month for religious holidays. It’s sandwiched right between two of the Wiccan sabbats, Ostara (March 20) and Beltane (May 1) — for pagans, this is a time for celebrating new beginnings, new life, and the coming return of the warmth and light of summer. April 20th was the first day of Passover which, according to My Jewish Learning, “commemorates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, and their transition from slavery to freedom.” And of course today is Easter, arguably the most important holy day in the Christian calendar. And we can’t forget our secular brothers and sisters — 4/20 was also a big day for a whole other crowd for a very different reason. (I hope you all remembered to leave out cookies and milk for Snoop Dogg!)
My point is, April is one of those months where everybody has something to celebrate. On the surface, those celebrations may seem wildly different — a solemn Easter vigil in a darkened Catholic church vs. a group of pagans dancing around a Maypole vs. a Jewish community gathered together to eat matzah and retell the story of the Israelites escaping slavery. But there’s a common thread running through the rituals, a single unifying spirit that can be felt throughout. Christians are remembering Jesus Christ’s triumph over death and the promise of eternal life. Pagans are celebrating the sexual union between the God (or male principle) and Goddess (or female principle) and the new life this union produces. Jewish people are remembering the deliverance of God’s chosen people from slavery and death, into a new life. There’s a running theme of turning away from darkness and death and towards light, and a common celebration of life.
I was able to attend an Easter vigil service at my local Episcopalian church last night, and it was a beautiful experience. It also had a very pagan feel to it. The service began with the entire congregation gathered around a fire pit outside the church, each of us with an unlit candle in hand. We watched one of the acolytes (“altar servers” for my Catholic friends, “teenagers who help the priest during the service” for those who have no idea what I’m talking about) spark a flint stone and light a small bundle of kindling. We watched him breathe on the tiny spark to urge it to flame, literally breathing life into the fire. Once the bonfire was lit and had been blessed by the priest, another acolyte lit the pascal candle (which is a really big, white candle) from the fire, and it was from this flame that the congregation lit their smaller candles. There was a procession into the church, where we proceeded to spend the next hour and a half celebrating the triumph of life over death. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead (whether you interpret that literally or metaphorically) and has risen to an exalted state. Through his sacrifice, his followers can achieve a similar triumph over death.
I am not going to be able to attend any local Beltane festivities this year because of my work/school schedule, but I am still very excited for this major sabbat. As Harmony Nice describes it in her book Wicca: A Modern Guide to Witchcraft & Magick, “The earth is buzzing and all of the earth’s energies are thriving; fertility, sexuality, passion, energy, and new life are at their peak of stimulation at this time.” Author Thea Sabin adds: “Beltane is joyous. The God and the Goddess are mature, strong, and in love.” This is a time when the earth is in a state of harmony and nature has turned towards the light half of the year. The warmth and light in the world around us can also be found inside of us, in our relationships with friends, families, and lovers. Interestingly, Beltane celebrations often contain bonfires not unlike the one included in the Easter service I attended.
I don’t know very much about Passover celebrations, but I would be willing to bet that they also contain a joyful celebration of life — and I know that Passover celebrations contain a shared meal, which is the model for communion in Christian services.
Back to last night’s Easter vigil. The first reading of the service was the first account of creation given in Genesis, and as I listened to the reader reciting the familiar story, I realized something I never had before: this myth explicitly mentions the four natural elements as an essential part of the creation of the universe:
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth — and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters — Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light… Then God said: Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear. And so it happened.” (Genesis 1:1-3 and 1:9, New American Bible: Revised Edition)
Granted, the elements aren’t referred to by the names commonly used for them today (air, water, fire, and earth) but they are clearly all present and essential to the creation process. The elements are one of the cornerstones of Wicca and many other pagan faiths, and hearing them mentioned in Christian scripture reminded me how fundamental they are to the way we as humans experience the world around us.
I’m not pointing this out as part of some conspiracy about Easter being a stolen pagan holiday or anything like that, but I think it’s another interesting example of the many universal aspects of human life. I also think that it’s a reminder to Christians that the physical world is an important part of our existence. In my experience, Christian celebrations like Easter and Christmas tend to get caught up in the spiritual and intellectual aspects of life and faith, and can sometimes neglect the physical. If you believe that Jesus Christ was both fully divine and fully human, as most modern Christians do, then you have to give equal importance to those two sides of him. The spirit is important — it is through our spirits that we perceive the Divine — but so is the body. Our body is how we connect to the earth and to the people around us, who are all reflections of the Divine. If you focus exclusively on one over the other, you’ll only be working with half of the tools available to you.
Likewise, it’s easy to write Beltane off as “the sex holiday,” or as a day that is merely a celebration of fertility, but to do so would ignore the spiritual element. Beltane marks a time of year when things are at their peak. The God and Goddess, the male and female halves of Divinity, are working together to create a thriving, living, beautiful world. The earth is moving towards summer, the height of the growing season. This is a time when things are coming to a head. Beltane is a great time of year to focus on our own spiritual growth. In fact, many Wiccans and neopagans divide the year into “light” and “dark” halves. The dark half of the year, which begins after the Summer Solstice and lasts through fall and winter, is a time for introspection, for private meditation, and for figuring out where we are on our spiritual journeys. The light half of the year, which begins after the Winter Solstice and lasts through spring and summer, is a time for outward growth. As one Wiccan friend described it to me, Beltane and other “light” sabbats are great times to metaphorically “birth” the things that you need or want in your life. A fertility festival doesn’t just have to be about literal, physical fertility — maybe you’d like your dating life to be a little more “fertile,” or your finances, or your education. Beltane is the perfect time to work on the things that will help you in your personal and spiritual growth.
When you step back and think about it, Beltane’s themes of new life, of growth, and of honoring the light within and without aren’t too different from Easter’s main theme of receiving new life through Christ.
Some Wiccans even honor the God as a cyclical figure who dies at the harvest, spends the winter in the realm of the dead, and is born again on Yule (which, coincidentally, shares a date and a lot of traditions with Christmas). It is this God’s union with the Goddess, both spiritual and sexual, that brings life and warmth to the earth each spring. Like Jesus, the God is a figure who willingly goes into the darkness so that, by coming back out of it, he may bring light, life, and hope. This motif of a “dying and rising” deity is not exclusive to Christianity and Wicca and also can be found throughout history and civilization, from ancient Mesopotamia to Greek polytheism to the Aztec empire.
The more I expose myself to different religions, the more I realize that they are all different ways of viewing the same universal truths. I look at these different holidays from different faiths all celebrating the same things, and I can’t help but feel like we’re all connected on a spiritual level. The fact that people from vastly different walks of life resonate with such similar theological concepts is truly amazing to me. It’s definitely given me something new to think about this Easter.
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