Revisiting the Easter Story
Talk given at Unitarian Universalist Church,
Housatonic, MA
4/17/22

 

How many of you are familiar with the “penal substitutionary atonement theory,” ???  Anyone? No?
Have you ever heard the saying, “Jesus died for your sins”?

 Well, “Substitutionary atonement” is the theory that Jesus, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished in the place of humans, thus satisfying the “demands of justice” so that God could forgive our sins. 

This theory of atonement ultimately relies on another commonly accepted notion—that of “original sin”, which, we were told, is passed on to all human beings thanks to Adam & Eve. But much like original sin, a concept not found in the Bible but developed by Augustine in the fifth century, the Substitution Atonement Theory gained traction during the reformation. Unfortunately most Christians have never been told how recent and regional this explanation is or that it relies upon a retributive form of justice. 

*According to Franciscan, Fr. Richard Rohr, this theory has held captive our vision of Jesus, making our view very limited and punitive. *(from CAC R. Rohr Feb. 2019)
 
So this morning I’d like to re-visit the Easter story and view it through a different lens. Rather than religious or church dogma I’d like to look at it as a story that doesn’t have to be literally true to be telling us a truth. After all Jesus used parables all the time to illustrate deeper truths. Oftentimes metaphor does a better job of saying what words can’t, as can imagery and symbolism.

 Let’s take a look at the cross symbolically.  
Prior to the rise of Christianity many people saw the cross as an intersection between the paths of the living and the dead- a crossroads
A cross is also an intersection of the vertical and horizontal - up/down, left /right 
Each of these can represent different ways of thinking, seeing and being. Vertical can indicate moving up - a higher view/elevated thought/ a spiritual way of seeing….or connecting the sky with the earth.

Below the intersection point and moving downward can represent the unconscious or that which is unknown or hidden to us-  things we’re unaware of that may be influencing, driving or affecting us.
 Down can also be grounding or tying us to the earth or connecting earth to sky.
The horizontal is a dividing line, separating upper and lower-earth/heaven. It’s also about direction or which way to go.
Or as the well known spiritual maxim says, “As above so below, as within so without”
This can mean that whatever a person does on Earth will be reflected in the spiritual realm, or that whatever happens in nature or the stars is reflected within the human body.

The cross can also represent the 4 directions.
The 4 directions are recognized in Native American spiritual practice and considered sacred. Each are invoked & welcomed in and honored at the beginning of any ceremony.

 In the story of the Crucifixion where is Jesus?
Literally right in the center of the cross - arms extending- feet pointed down, head up.
His heart is at the intersection.
 What does the heart represent? Life! It also represents Love. Love opens the heart and in that openness it can (and most certainly will) also be wounded.

 Someone you love dies-what happens? You mourn, you cry-your heart aches!
There’s a “price” we pay for loving-no matter what, sooner or later there will be heartache.

It’s thanks to the heart we have compassion and empathy.
Compassion is all about relating - we see someone in emotional pain and we feel “with” them- in other words we suffer with them!
Think of the images we have been seeing on the news lately of the people in Ukraine and the terrible suffering. As we watch we weep.

Jesus on the cross is saying, “ I suffer with you. I am fully human just like you and know how hard it is to be human. I know what it feels like to be ridiculed, to be betrayed and spit upon, I know what it feels like to love and not have that love returned to me” 

And then he goes further: He loves anyway, because Love is the way - the only way out of this predicament of life and suffering- and this is what is being shown here. How?
As he is dying he calls out from the cross “Forgive them for they know not what they’re doing”  
Love was at the center of what he was teaching - LOVE for everyone, even those responsible for killing him.
Forgiveness is a fruit of love. And that’s what’s being shown here in the story. 
Love transforms. Love resurrects. Love restores life. 
The story is also reminding us that the body is mortal and it will eventually fail and return to the elements.
But Love is immortal.

So this brings us to the heart of the story, which is that Jesus “overcame death”. But before he did this he did something else. After dying on the cross he descended into Hades or the underworld (hell came later, another invention) which is the land of the dead to ancient people. Instead of going up he went down!
Why? To open the gates that kept the souls stuck there. According to the story he “broke the chains”- this was a permanent fix.

 This scenario is really the classic Hero’s journey.
 
Now the story concludes on the 3rd day when the 3 Mary’s go to anoint the body and find the tomb empty. The first one to encounter the risen Jesus is Mary Magdalene BUT she doesn’t recognize him. 
Why?
Because he’s changed - he’s different.
In the story he has to tell her who he is. I’ll mention here that the same happens when the disciples see him.

 So what’s happening here? What are we being told?

 Jesus on the cross represents an archetype - the archetype of the wounded healer. It’s through the wound that the healing and growth happens and transformation can occur.

I don’t know about you-all, but I see this in my own life – numerous times. After all, the older you get and the more years lived, the more loss and the more wounds. More opportunities for growth, healing & Transformation! I am certainly not the person I once was…and that’s a good thing.

So getting back to Jesus and the story here. The cross is a tool of execution. So, thinking symbolically or metaphorically, what’s being said here is that we must die to what has been and who we have been, in other words, let go of who you have believed yourself to be, which is your ego’s story, one which you’ve told yourself (and others have told you)it’s the one you’ve mostly made up.   

You must die to what you were in order to become who you will be.

Like a seed has to split for the flower to emerge, or a caterpillar give way to the butterfly. What appears to be death is not what we think. All of nature tells us this. Everything we see is changing form-sometimes slowly/imperceptibly, cells die, new ones form-or death comes to an organism and it begins to decompose and in the process the very elements and atoms begin to become something new.

In the story Jesus wasn’t recognized because he’d been transformed. He’d become something/someone new.  Love will do that. He’d suffered greatly but because he’d also been able to love greatly he had become something more than he’d been before! His message is that the same is true for us. 

Did he rise from the dead?
 
I suggest that the story is telling us there really is no such thing as “dead”, only dying, and that dying is merely a passage. And we, along with all of creation, have been doing it since the beginning! Think about it because you’ve been doing it since showing up here in this world.
After all, no one here is in the same body they arrived here with-right?? Are you? The 10 year old you had to die to become the 11 yr old and then the teenager, and then the adult…and on and on.

Yet the “I” that is you has been there though it all, witnessing it all, and it has unfolded seamlessly-in other words, you did not die but you did change. But the “I” that you are? The AWARENESS that has watched it all? That has just moved along with the changes, but yet is still the “I” *
(note this is not the same thing as the “me” we think we are but rather the awareness that notices that me).

Jesus said to the people, “I and the Father are one”(in Aramaic, “ABBA”- is a non gender, term of endearment-think Daddy/Mommy). By the way this got him in all the trouble because it was considered sacrilege and that certainly plays a part in what got him killed. So he says on more than one occasion “God and I are one”, but he also said, “I am in you as you are in me”. So the same applied to us!

 In other words, we are all part of each other, a piece of a greater Whole.

 The Buddha was called “the Awakened One” because it was said he saw life and reality as it really is. Buddha means Awakened. I believe this is what Jesus was as well, awake. He was able to See what really is and trying to tell others about it.

Jesus never said worship me, he only said follow me. In other words, do these things that I do and you will see. (Buddha said almost the exact same thing). Putting him on a throne was not his idea. But this is what eventually happened. And that led to things like atonement theory and all kinds of other damaging things that have led us in the opposite direction from where he was calling us to go.

So this is my take on the Easter Story, minus the dogma and substitutionary atonement. Thank you for listening. Rather than Atonement I now see “At one-ment”
Each of us is on a journey toward the same thing, waking up is no easy thing. Love really helps.
I believe it is essential. Thank you.