Why is this week different from all other weeks? For one thing, it’s the first major holiday of the pandemic era.
Actually it’s a double holiday: Passover and Easter have always been joined at the hip. Passover, based on a lunar calendar, often falls on the first full moon after the 21st of March (though not always). Easter, also a lunar-based holiday, is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the 21st of March. Jesus’ Last Supper (Holy Thursday) was a Passover Seder.
Passover celebrates liberation of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Easter celebrates liberation of humanity from the bondage of death. They are the most significant events in Judeo-Christian mythology.
The world’s great authority on mythology, Joseph Campbell, in his book, Thou Art That, said the central truth of Passover and Easter is this: “We are called out of bondage in the way the moon throws off its shadow to emerge anew, in the way life throws off the shadow of death. Easter and Passover have the same roots; we are called out of bondage to our old tradition. Easter is not Easter and Passover is not Passover unless they release us, even from the tradition that gives us these feasts. … Easter and Passover make us experience in ourselves a call out of bondage, yes, but so experiencing them does not destroy the religious tradition. Understanding these symbols in their transcendent spiritual sense enables us to see and to possess our religious traditions freshly.”
There are many kinds of bondage: addiction, dependence, abuse, discrimination, racism, economic servitude. Slavery takes many forms.
We are currently being held hostage by this virus. But that bondage provides an opportunity to renew our religious traditions. We can’t worship in traditional ways. Too dangerous for our health. We’re forced to be creative, to reinvent, to resurrect what is most important.
Campbell said our religious traditions lose their meaning if we can’t apply this living mythology to our own lives. This is not just about something that happened to somebody long ago.
The Easter myth says a great religious figure died and rose from the dead. The Passover myth says an entire people was spared by the angel of death and thus liberated from slavery. How do we make such seemingly preposterous stories come alive in our lives?
If Jesus rose from the dead, we can arise from deadness, a viral affliction for most if not all of us. We all experience death in living: The death of a pet, of a marriage, of loved ones, of a chapter in our lives, of a dream. There is also the internal deadness of complacency, stagnation, isolation, insulation, cynicism, emotional or spiritual paralysis. And then there is the deadliness of this pandemic. Death is our loyal companion throughout life.
We experience deadness within ourselves — in our body, in our heart, in our soul, and also in our relationships. Deadness of faith, trust, hope, meaning. A kind of soul-sickness or weariness. The fear of death itself can keep us from living fully.
Deadness even extends to God — the God we have believed in who is not God but an unworthy facsimile, a personification of the lesser angels of our nature, flawed theologies of the past, or our own spiritual immaturity. A God who is too small to be God as Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries puts it. That God needs to die — in order to be resurrected in a fuller form.
According to Campbell, “The mystical writer Meister Eckhart once wrote that the ultimate leave-taking is the leaving of God for God.” A larger God, whom the late Brian Doyle called by many names, such as “Coherent Mercy.” My preferred term for the God who may or may not exist is “Greatest of All Mysteries.”
Doyle wrote eloquently about believing the impossible: “It is illogical, unreasonable, unthinkable, unprovable, nonsensical, counter-cultural, and in direct defiance of all evidence and human history. Isn’t that great? Isn’t the loopiness at the center of it the best thing of all? We never admit that — but maybe we should celebrate it.”
The Resurrection and Passover stories are impossible for our rational minds to believe. But they speak to a deeper part of ourselves through the language of myth, Campbell said. They allow our psyches to cast off the shadow of death and emerge anew. Rising from death or deadness is another way of saying coming to life again — to your senses, to your mind and heart, to yourself and each other, to life itself, life all around you. It means waking up, just as the natural world all around us awakens. Take a walk and you’ll see a holy host of people casting off the bondage of the virus and doing little more than watching the world wake up. There might not be a better way to celebrate Passover and Easter (and starting on April 23, Ramadan).
But we are also in the throes of a wider awakening — countrywide, worldwide. We’re in the process of rising from the deadness of our institutions, politics, and traditions — rising from this pandemic, awakening to a renewable, more sustainable world.
The Israelites awoke on the morning after the angel of death passed over to find themselves liberated. Mary Magdalene and the other apostles awoke on Easter morning, but Mary was so eager she ran ahead and was the first to see the open tomb.
Death, according to our mythology, means to be born anew. What is your liberation? What is the open tomb in your life? What is your miracle? What resurrection is imminent?
How will you celebrate Passover and Easter and Ramadan (or whatever you celebrate) in this era of social-distancing?
Here’s one way: Arise from deadness. Come alive.
The world is emerging anew all around you.