I love Easter as a time of rebirth, a resurrection of life. When I was a child, there was always a new outfit, hand-sewn and often cut down and reworked from other garments, new white shoes and a new hat, usually white straw with flowers, chilly to wear when Easter was early as it was this year. To me, it was an unparalleled celebration of light, a miracle – like finding the horse radish root pushing green up out of the newly thawed soil.
In those days, I hadn’t heard about the Easter bunny. He didn’t come to the hills where my family farmed hardscrabble soil. But the hens had started laying eggs again by then and they were served in abundance on Easter Sunday breakfast. It wasn’t unheard of for a farmer like my father to polish off a dozen when he came in from milking and before we all set off for church.
Once we moved to town there were still new clothes at Easter and our growing family might even present itself at church, but that was a special occasion. I would have been the only family member who went for all the Sundays in Lent and right the way through, I would have been looking forward to the exuberance of Easter Sunday.
My love for the Anglican liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible were enough to keep my child self coming back for more.
This past Easter Sunday, I revisited some of that poetry as I drove north to Barrie, Ontario for brunch. I fired up my iPhone and listened to the second part of Handel’s “Messiah”, beginning just before the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Handel took the passages from the Bible and set them to his stirring music. One of my favourite pieces is the soprano aira, “I know that my redeemer liveth”, (Job XIX, 25-26) which ends with “And tho’ worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”. The remaining songs are taken from Psalms and the writings of the Apostle Paul, mostly the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians.
I have been lucky in my religious education. I listened to the beautiful King James Bible being read aloud in church and at my grandmother’s, daily in the latter case. I went to church religiously: I sang in the children’s choir. And the university I went to was affiliated with the Baptist Church still when I attended it. Not my church and at the time, I was not happy with the mandatory religious studies, but it gave me a ‘grown-up’ perspective on the New Testament, especially on Paul.
As I listened to “The Messiah” – and drove northward, I remembered reading Tim Harpur’s book The Pagan Christ at Easter in 2004 and I got to thinking about Paul’s letters to the early Christian church. The Apostle’s letters are actually the earliest writings in the New Testament and are “virtually” silent “on the whole subject of a historical Jesus of Nazareth” (Harpur, 166). Paul’s writing predates the earliest gospel, that of Mark, by about 20 years. First Corinthians probably dates from 55 A.D. “Paul was a mystic and he knew only the mystical ‘Christos’, Christ not ‘after the flesh’ but after the spirit. As he says, ‘The Lord is that spirit’.” (Harpur, 172) Paul does not talk about Jesus Christ as a personal saviour, in other words, he talks about redemption through the Christ within. It was the next generation of writers, working from an oral tradition, who wrote about a historical Jesus who died 70 years before.
Harpur, like other scholars before him, noted the similarity between the story of Jesus and the stories of other divine sons of God like the Egyptian, Horus. He concluded, after much research and soul searching, that the Gospel stories were “true myths” but not meant to be taken literally. This was not an easy conclusion for him to come to. It had unsettled him badly at first, but ultimately, it lent depth to his faith. It meant that he as an individual was responsible for his own salvation, the Bible having shown the way. Jesus Christ had to be born in the cave of his own heart. The stone had to be rolled away from the tomb of his own deadness, the oblivion of being incarnated in flesh, so that the Christ within would be resurrected and true spiritual consciousness be attained.
By the time I read The Pagan Christ, I did not find the idea surprising. I had worked my way around to a similar position reading Buddhist and Taoist writing. It seems to me that all religions come around to that idea. The 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi, speaks of the ecstatic union with the Friend as a sort of drunken abandon. My Aunt Mae dwelt in great joy with her best buddy Jesus. You could hear her singing His praises as you walked up to her isolated, tiny house. I do not doubt that she saw heaven on earth.
At such festivals, I find myself reworking meaning, sorting out the literal from the metaphorical. But in the end, I do not doubt that “my redeemer liveth… and in my flesh shall I see God”.