Our religious traditions share a common grounding in the natural world. But I can only speak firsthand of the grounding Christian tradition receives from nature. Each year the grand cycle of nature unfolds with its season of birth, fullness, harvest, and death. The Christian calendar follows a similar rhythm with Advent/Christmas, Lent, Easter/Eastertide, and Season after Pentecost (the long “green” season).
Over the centuries these liturgical seasons have developed strong relationships with the seasons of nature.
Advent and Christmas, coming as they do when the days are growing shorter, have a strong resonance with light. It certainly helps that Isaiah gave us the image of a people walking in darkness so that Matthew could refine this into an image for the coming of Jesus – making us the people in darkness who receive the light of Christ. It is a powerful juxtaposition that as the natural world is increasingly dark, Jesus is the light that is not diminished.
Easter, too, takes much from its seasonal setting. The notion of death and resurrection resonate massively with the agricultural image of a seed dying and going into the ground, only to spring up with new life.
So, we can happily reflect on “the bleak mid-winter” into which Jesus comes. And we can also happily reflect on “the green blade” rising as part of our Easter observance. There is room for lots of poetic license. Would Bethlehem be likely to have “snow on snow” in December (accepting that Jesus was born in December…)? It’s possible, but not likely. And the image of a green blade poking up from its apparent death experience would surely happen, but not particularly around the time of Easter or Passover in Israel.
The natural seasons that so inform our experience of Christian tradition are European,
not Mediterranean. Still they are ancient – frequently bringing into use symbols more ancient than Christianity. All Saints and its prelude, All Hallows Eve (Halloween) now sit squarely on top of the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain. The great symbol of Advent, the Advent Wreath, is not sourced in Christian tradition, but in ancient pagan symbology. The now-universal “Christmas Tree” does not have any scriptural warrant at all. Christian tradition quite comfortably welcomes a vast array of other traditions – and why not? The Magi were welcomed at Jesus’ birth.
This is on my mind because we are in the end of Lent and about to keep Easter. No less a figure than the Venerable Bede tells us that the very name “Easter” is derived from an ancient goddess, “Eostre”. She, in turn, is associated with springtime and fertility. People other than Bede might argue that “Ishtar” is the goddess who gives her name to Easter… And others argue that in German and English-speaking tradition, it is not an ancient goddess, but rather the direction of the rising sun, the east, which gives the day its name. Whatever the reason, symbols of spring, of fertility, have become deeply attached to Easter. The chocolate Easter Bunnies are there because the highly prolific rabbit is a symbol of fertility. Easter Eggs can symbolize Jesus rising from the tomb, if you like, but the obvious fertility symbol of eggs has been associated with this time of year for most of eternity.
Normally this sort of chaotic amalgam of ancient symbols co-opted by Christian Tradition flows past without much obvious impact. Our holidays are made richer, but are not defined by it.
But here I am in South Africa, which is clearly not in the northern hemisphere. It is heavily influenced by European colonization (for better and worse), but it is in a region with opposite seasons. The US is clearly not Europe either, but in terms of seasons it is nearly identical. So for the first time in my life I am experiencing various Christian events in the “wrong” season.
Here we are almost at Easter and we will sing many of the same familiar hymns with various references to “new life” and such, but we are heading into Autumn. Green sprouts are not pushing their heads up through the earth. We are more in a season of harvest than of planting. Advent is similarly backward. The days are long and getting longer. We hear about the people sitting in darkness, but the experience is just the opposite.
For me, because I am accustomed to the subtle reinforcement of the natural seasons to the liturgical seasons, this standing of things on their heads is wonderful. Things I could easily take for granted suddenly take on meaning.
But at the same time, for folks who are deeply accustomed to the Southern Hemisphere, I have a sense that there is a loss. The symbolic language developed in Western Europe is lovely, but what symbolic language might South Africa have developed if the European
symbols had not filled all the space? Is there a voice like Christina Rosetti waiting to be heard? Is there a different view of the little town of Bethlehem that we might glimpse? Is there an approach to Easter without chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps?
Christian tradition at its best, in my opinion, is quite inclusive. The church, as it pushed its way into northern Europe, simply incorporated the best of the celebrations it found. All Hallows and Halloween can live quite happily together. Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday are a marvelous compliment. The Feast of the Resurrection and a celebration of fertility belong together – since they are both about new life.
So, to all my friends in the northern hemisphere – a happy Easter and eat a peep for me.