Lenten Reflections: Stories of Spring From Many Faiths
The liturgy of Holy Week, when Christians the world over enter into the remembrance of Jesus Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, is a story shrouded in the mysteries of heaven and hard-hewn from the jagged edges of earth. It is meant to stand as a contradiction, as a paradox, a nail hammered through the center of palms, and a spear slicing through the center of hearts. It is as an open-mouthed gasp and garment-rending wail.
It is meant to be something that makes us at first recoil, for it is too close to the sorrows that have harrowed us up in the here and now, and we would wish the depths of it away from us. We fear to open our eyes in the darkness, lest we forever become blind. We dread the suffusion of our mortal senses, lest we be forced to face our own helplessness. And yet, only in the shadow of the Cross do we find the finger of the dawn just beyond the hill of skulls.
Too often, even among practicing Christians, Holy Week is not so much a transformative sacramental experience as a ritual by rote received with complacency, a running through of the motions without true spiritual engagement. We become so used to hearing the tale, even of participating in the readings on Palm Sunday, that the outcome becomes a given. Meanwhile, the rest of the world associates it with its trappings, but rarely penetrates the surface of the belief, focused solely on the celebration of Easter with all its light, while skipping over the sacrificial element of Good Friday with all its darkness.
And yet, the shifting of the seasons alone cannot help but make us ponder the nature of life born from death as unearthed in our own deepest-sown stories, nurtured deep in the heart, and digested deep in the belly, of the earth and her peoples. Survival depended upon a keen focus on the wheel of the year to know when to plant, harvest, and preserve for the lean months ahead. It also taught the months to hunt and gather, with each life form dependent upon the others to hold all in balance. It is the inheritance of a primeval consciousness that still pervades us, even in our more secure and comfortable modern societies. Even in its earliest rumblings, spring has always been and always will be a time of deep spiritual significance on a universal level, to pre-Christians, non-Christians, and Christians alike.
It is the season in which the Druidic Celts would honor Brighid, triple goddess of fire in the hearth (fertility, childbearing, healing), in the forge (craftsmanship, weaving, and the law), and of inspiration (poetry, song, storytelling). She stirs the cauldron of “Awen”, inspiring us and testing us and bringing us to rebirth within this dark, mysterious, bubbling womb of rulers, warriors, and bards alike. She was seen as integral to the earth which was her body, and the rivers which were her blood. Her three faces are often shown gazing down from the hills, symbolizing her as Maiden, Mother, and Crone. She is alternately envisioned as the red-eared, white cow, giving nourishing milk to starving souls, or as a bird with unfolding wings only for those with eyes to see her epiphany. She is peace-weaver, gold-bender, and keeper of the flame.
Like the mythological Oak and Holly Kings who rule over different halves of the year, the aspects of Maiden and Crone present in Brighid also take turns ruling as the seasons. The Maiden would be imprisoned for the length of the winter, when the Crone, carrying her lantern, rules over the barren land. The prayers of the people would cause the Crone to die and be reborn in her Maiden form. In celebration, gifts would be cast into wells and ribbons hung on trees on the festival of Imbolc, meaning “ewe’s milk”, for the time had come for the sheep to become pregnant and the cycle of life to repeat itself, as the story continued to be woven by each new generation. In keeping with this, during the conversion of Ireland, stories were told of Brighid adopting the Christ Child as her own and rearing Him to reign over her people as High King.
In Taoist and Buddhist tradition, spring is the season to celebrate Kwan Yin, the Mother of a Thousand Faces and Ten Hearts, celestial bodhishattva of love and compassion. In her legend, she runs away to a Buddhist monastery to escape her brutal warlord father, but he subsequently, orders the monastery to be razed and his daughter to be executed. However, she takes compassion on her own killer, and descends to the underworld to bear his sentence. There, she began to play and sing beautiful music, causing flowers to grow, light to return, and the souls of the oppressed to be liberated. The Lord of the Underworld returns her to earth in the form of supernatural Tigress. But news came to Kwan Yin that her father was deathly ill, and the only thing that could save him was an elixir made of a tiger’s eyes. Thus, when the hunters came to search for her, she sacrifices herself to them out of compassion for her cruel father.
Though her purity meant that she was worthy of the bliss of Nirvana, she was overwhelmed by the cries of the suffering creatures of earth, and decided to remain between the worlds to aid all sentient beings in need until all were freed from suffering. As such, she won her enlightenment through her sacred sense of hearing, and even the calling of her name was considered a saving action in Chinese culture. She is known for appearing in dreams with a vase full of weeping willow branches steeped in waters of healing, actualizing her title as “She Who Hears the Cries of the World.” She is also called “The Jewel of the Lotus”, that fairest blossom which springs forth from the deepest mud and symbolizes the unfolding of wisdom and the fragrance of compassion, able to transform any suffering and redeem any evil.
There are countless other spring mythologies. The ancient Anglo-Saxons were said to honor Eostre, goddess of fertility and rebirth, whose name means “dawning light in the east” and from whom we inherit our symbols of painted eggs and white rabbits. The Norse would worship Freya, the wife of the All Father one-eyed god Odin, who abandons the earth during the cold months and returns to restore warmth, wearing her magnificent necklace representing the fire of the sun and her magical cloak of hawk’s feathers, allowing her to shift shape. Osiris, the Egyptian god-king of earth and vegetation, dies during the yearly drought and is reborn during the periodic flooding of the Nile. Persephone, Grecian goddess of spring’s bounty, is seized by Haides and carried off to the underworld as his bride. Her mother, Demeter, refuses to let the earth fruit until Persephone is returned for part of every year, when the growth of new grain and the flowering of the meadows herald her arrival.
Spring is full of still more hauntings from our imaginal past that live on through time-honored custom and the sensual experience of the season that Pagans and Christians alike share in. It is a time when the archetypal John Barleycorn is struck down by scythes only to spring forth anew for the brewing of beer. It is the time when the hens lay their eggs, soon to be collected by “ghosts of the dead”, local villagers dressed as slain war heroes for “pace-egging” rituals, not unlike the wintertime wassailing. It is the time when rabbits breed and the farm animals grow full with milk. It is the time of hot cross buns, signifying the phases of the Moon and the death of the Son. It is a time of blossoms clinging aromatically to the air as the warm breeze blows them to paint the colors of the wind. It is the time of the robin’s red breast matching the tulip’s petals, and her small turquoise eggs matching a newborn sky. It is a season of old songs reborn to shape our ongoing stories, as the ocean gale fills out the sails of a coracle.
For the reality is that human beings have always been storytellers, and we yearn to make sense of the universe around and within us. We have been blessed to attain a sublime combination of intelligence, emotions, and will-power to seek out truth, goodness, and beauty, and knowingly revel in the wonders around us. Since the earliest days, we have striven to express our ability to understand reality and interact more fully with all its facets. From out of the dust, a breath once stirred, and the Word of Life was uttered. It was the infusion of the sacred into the soil. It was our divine spark kindled from scattered starlight. We breathed in, and we breathed out. And we were aware of our breathing, our speaking, our singing.
We knew ourselves in the wildness of our waking, and felt the rain fall on our faces, and knew it was blessed. This was our first incarnation, arising from the incarnation of the universe itself, brought forth from the womb of the God-soaked darkness. The ripples of Christology, of God pouring out reality and infusing it with the divine essence, had begun. And in that single creative initiative, all history is silver-star-strung beyond the confines of time and space, unified through so many little incarnations leading up to His human incarnation. How many wise men, down through the ages, have followed that perpetual Light?
The medieval mystical writings of the Jewish Kabbalah make reference to this indwelling of the divine within the physical universe as the Shekinah. According to the Kabbalist version of creation, En Sof is the Source of all things, both everything and nothing, full of potential yet nothing manifested, with no beginning and no end, neither masculine nor feminine, but still both at the same time. In order for the creation process to begin, En Sof withdrew from Itself to allow the potential to actualize through a contracting process. As this withdrawal took place, the feminine Shekinah remained to become a primordial vessel through which the essence of En Sof could flow and concentrate to such a degree that the energy of creation burst forth in the Big Bang. She became the birth canal of the universe and the soul of God present to all creation, and as such, the soul of the world itself.
Even when Humankind was banished from the Garden state of union with God, the Shekinah is said to have stayed with humanity, keeping us sustained through all our exiles, even though her soul was “shattered” in grief at being further separated from her spouse, En Sof. It is commonly thought that the richly romantic “Song of Songs” is an allegory for this tragic separation and prophesied reunion. It is the driving desire of the universe that the two lovers should be reunited, but this can only happen through the concept of Tikkun Olam, “healing the land” or “building for eternity”, a responsibility of humanity to go beyond the self to help heal the souls of others and of all creation in preparation for the great reunion with the divine, and the coming back together of the bride and bridegroom in mystical ecstasy. The Shekinah embodies the patience of a pregnant woman waiting for her child to be born, and the active agency of a midwife bringing that birth to fruition. When we purify our souls from the sinful dross of our being, she shows us her face and promises that renewal is at hand.
In a similar vein out of the Christian tradition, St. Julian of Norwich, the Incarnational and Trinitarian mystic, contains masculine power of Christ contained within the feminine power of Mary that brings about a “second birth” for humanity:
“This fair and lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of Him and to Him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belongs nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God. For the almighty truth of the Trinity is our Father, for He made us and keeps us in Him. And the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, in whom we are enclosed. And the high goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in Him we are enclosed and he in us. So our Lady is our mother, in whom we are all enclosed and born of her in Christ, for she who is mother of our saviour who is mother of all who are saved in our saviour; and our saviour is our true Mother, in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”