Reflections on the Season: A Unitarian Universalist View
By Rev. Ms. Denise D. Tracy
Presented by Omni-U Virtual University
When I was in Theological School, I studied with the very famous theologian Harvey Cox, who wrote the book, “Feast of Fools”. As part of our class, he had us study parades. We analyzed who was in the parades, which groups marched representing the country and/or the community, etc. Cox believed that parades indicated who was important in the culture. If you have ever seen a parade in more authoritarian countries like China or Russia, there are military processions of thousands of people, walking in lock-step, followed by long lines of war equipment. When we studied parades in America, we saw Mayors riding in convertibles and high school bands, followed by Veterans‘ groups and horses with Western riders. Scout troops always ended the procession. We analyzed the Rose Bowl and Macy’s parades: Which companies were represented? What symbols were uplifted? It was an interesting exercise that I still practice today.
While studying the parade of the Passover into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, our class discussed how the death of Jesus was the logical conclusion to His joining the parade that day when, by popular demand, He was extemporaneously added to this parade, As a growing religious leader, Jesus' presence challenged both the Jewish Rabbinical power structure and the power structure of the Roman government - the religious and political power structures of His day. By popular acclaim, Jesus was openly challenging the culture of His day. The waving of palms was a symbol of both powers and royalty. In many ways, the parade of Passover, which celebrates love,color, and Crucifixion, was the challenge- by the followers of Jesus- which led to his Crucifixion.
Over the years, I have become a follower of the person, Jesus, rather than a believer in the doctrines of the church. I love the stories about Jesus' kindness, of His healing, of His teaching. He touched a menstruating woman, which was absolutely forbidden in his time. He talked to a divorced woman, taking pity on her status as a social outcaste, also forbidden. He called to the tax collector, Zaccheus who was perched in a tree, coaxed him down, and then talked with him. He talked to children, as well. When the crowds gathered to listen to Jesus, He talked to them- not about rules or beliefs- rather He talked about how to live.
There is not a single word, in the Sermon on the Mount, about what to believe. There are only teachings about how to live and how to be a good human being. Three hundred years later, when the Nicene Creed was adopted, this creed tells us what to believe but there is not one word about how to live or how to be. It was the adoption of the Nicene Creed that tipped the balance away from Unitarians to the Trinitarians. By 326 AD, the lessons of Jesus' life are subsumed by the rules and doctrines of the church hierarchy.
I consider myself a Christian, but most Christians would not consider me so. I believe in the person of Jesus. I believe in His example. Jesus would have us love all people. Jesus would not approve of the anti-gay, anti-trans laws that are being passed in our country today. No matter whether gay or straight, trans- or questioning, race or color, Jesus said "Love thy neighbor". Jesus would not countenance war or priests who violate the children in their care. I am a Christian who follows the actions and example of Jesus-not the doctrines of the church.
Everywhere Christianity spread, its great strength became determining the faiths of new potential believers and adapting their practices and customs into Christianity. And even when people converted to Christianity, wherever it spread, the people kept their traditions.
One spring, around the time of year of the Vernal Equinox- Orthodox Easter- my husband, Bill, and I found ourselves in Athens, Greece. We were staying north of Athens in a hotel nestled into the side of a hill. In the evening, we went for a walk and as we absorbed the sweet smells of spring, we noticed that cars had flower lei’s looped around their hoods. Some cars had flower wreaths attached to the hood ornament and many women were wearing flower crowns. As we looked up into the mountains, the hills were dotted with bonfires.
On Easter weekend, the doors of the churches of Athens were open and their sanctuaries were filled with light. People were laughing and dancing. I realized that what we were seeing were the old Goddess rituals, carried out thousands of years later by people who combined their ancestral family rituals, which had been passed down through generations, with their current Christian faith.
In the Athens Museum, one small statue is the prize of the Museum’s collection. It is a tiny statue of Mary with the child, Jesus, sitting on her lap. Those faithful to the Goddess religion were not interested in converting to Christianity, at all- until this statue was created. Suddenly Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was seen as an important part of the story of Jesus. When the role of Mary was uplifted and made part of the story of Jesus, Goddess believers started to give consideration to this new faith. Jesus had a mother who was important to His story. The people kept their ancient customs: flowers, bonfires, wreaths on cars (instead of on their horses or carts). Two thousand years later, the people were unknowingly celebrating the goddess on Easter eve.
Everywhere on earth, there are celebrations of Spring. Our two adopted daughters, who were born in Thailand, tell of the Spring Water Ceremony. It is a colossal celebration of the coming of Spring, the rebirth of the earth. Every Spring, as the earth blooms, there are giant parades of brightly- dressed people marching in the streets. The crowds of onlookers on the sides of the streets douse everyone with water. Soon, everyone is wet and you cannot tell the marchers from the observers.
In India, there is a celebration called "Holi". It happens over a night and day of the full moon, usually in March. It celebrates love, color, and spring. At night, huge bonfires are built to rid the earth of evil. The next day people wear white and are splashed with bright colors of dye. The white clothing, faces, hair, hands and feet become brilliantly colored as a celebration of spring. "Holi" started in India as a Hindu festival but is now celebrated in South Africa, on Islands such as Jamaica, as well as in Australia and New Zealand.
Our first trip to Egypt was in the Spring for our honeymoon. Ramadan was ending. We traveled at sunset, in the fading evening light, to an ancient monument- a temple outside of Cairo. We got out of our car and walked with the families. The women were using their voices to make loud vibrating noises. They had noisemakers made from sardine cans. There were children, mothers, fathers- old and young. We were swept along towards this ancient Egyptian monument in the rush of the celebration. A veiled woman linked arms with me and we were among thousands of Muslim folk "breaking the fast "of the last day of Ramadan in the courtyard of history. I have never felt such passion in any ritual before or since.
In the Southwest, the churches in the communities of Indigenous Peoples are decorated with paintings of corn, squash, and the flowers of the local fields. The vestments of the Priests are brightly colored with native American designs and patterns.
In England, around the time of the Equinox, the local folk burn bonfires at night and, during the next day, they gather and surround the outside of the church buildings in what are called "clipping ceremonies": the entire community gathers in a giant circle holding hands, facing inward towards the building. They move in a circle, dancing and singing. Then, they turn and face outward toward the world. Singing, Dancing, Warding off evil, and inviting goodness into the community. English towns do this throughout the countryside. Everyone knows the custom is pagan in heritage and people do not know what it means or why. Still they gather.
Let me tell you the story of my favorite Easter -ever. When I was a District Executive, churches did not need me at either Christmas or Easter. So, we often vacationed during these holidays. One spring break, Bill and I took a group of 40 Unitarian Universalists to Egypt- our second trip there- which, by chance, coincided with Easter. On the Saturday evening before Easter, we were in Cairo. I asked our bus driver if he could pick us up before dawn on Easter morning and take us to the pyramids. He said yes. I informed our group of this extra excursion and at 4:00am we got on the bus, traveled across Cairo through the usual traffic jam, and arrived at the pyramids. We were the only people there. There are 6 pyramids on the site: one very large, two medium-size and three smaller ones, called the Three Sister Pyramids.
As the sun began to rise, Bill climbed one of the two medium-sized pyramids of Giza. My legs were too short for that so, I climbed one of the shorter "Sister" pyramids. As the sun rose, Bill and I began to do Tai Chi, facing each other. As the sun came up in the east, I noticed the full moon was setting in the west. There we were, celebrating Easter, Spring, Life, and Love, suspended in space, standing on the pyramids between the sun and the moon, doing Tai Chi, mirroring each other. My favorite Easter, ever. Perhaps, my favorite day, ever.
On Palm Sunday, we remember the day Jesus joined the Passover parade. Each Easter, many celebrate Jesus' walk toward His crucifixion and resurrection. I choose to celebrate His Life. I celebrate Spring and the earth’s splendid unfolding. I am glad for the blending of many traditions. Being Unitarian Universalist means I get to claim any and all of them. I invite you to celebrate the season by claiming all of your beliefs! May you have a good Life , walking whatever path of belief or beliefs that you have chosen. Celebrate your chosen faith and beliefs -all of them-and fall in love with being alive!
Amen, Shalom, Blessed Be.