I love the springtime, for all the colors of green are in abundance. I live on the lake on a property originally developed to be a high rise hotel and casino, until the city derailed that plan. Then it became vacation condos and retirement homes. Since it’s located on a large plot of timbered land, I even see my rabbit neighbors on occasion. My bunny friends usually move about at dawn and dusk. I’m not an early bird, and since Covid, my “out and abouts” have been seriously curtailed, so I’ve yet to see my four legged furry neighbors this year. Maybe I’ll have a better chance to see the Easter Bunny. I did purchase his dark chocolate cousin from Dove, who’s been reduced to a single ounce and will be gone by Easter Sunday. The ears went first, of course.
Our parents found ways in the old days to keep us active and entertained in the weeks leading up to Easter. One of my favorite experiences was egg dying and decorating. Back in Mom’s kitchen, boiling water, vinegar and colored pellets went into the coffee cups before we wrangled the wire holder and lowered the hard boiled egg into the dye. If we dipped the egg all the way in or held it for a longer time, we could get deeper colors. One year I even attempted to use only natural dyes, such as beets, cabbage, and onions. My “science-anthropology” experiment didn’t turn out as pretty as the PAAS collection, but I learned a lot. Crayon resist worked with both dye types, however. Perhaps I never appreciated how fortunate I was my mom taught school and my dad encouraged us kids to learn everything about our world. Almost anything was a science project in his mind.
As a child, I knew I’d arrived when I graduated to the big crayola box with sixty four colors in it. Suddenly I had a year round wealth of shades and hues at my command, plus I could combine them for even more variety: Here are the colors that ended up being in the 64 count box in 1958: orchid, lavender, carnation pink, thistle, red violet, violet red, brick red, magenta, maroon, mulberry, Indian red, red, melon, salmon, orange red, red orange, orange, flesh, maize, goldenrod, yellow orange, apricot, orange yellow, yellow, lemon yellow, green yellow, spring green, yellow green, sea green, olive green, green, pine green, aquamarine, forest green, turquoise blue, green blue, sky blue, blue green, periwinkle, blue, navy blue, midnight blue, cornflower, blue gray, cadet blue, violet, blue, blue violet, violet, plum, tan, burnt orange, mahogany, burnt sienna, brown, raw sienna, bittersweet, raw umber, sepia, black, silver, gray, gold, copper, white. I could make any landscape sing with whatever color my young imagination called forth. My birthday month always calls forth all the colors nature has on her palette.
Of course, not every tree sports a shade of green as its primary dress in the springtime. Some bud out all in white, others in dark red violet, while still others bloom out in light pinks. If I squint my aging eyes today, I can see a haphazard lace design across the landscape before me in multicolored threads, with a few embroidered trunks to give it a semblance of stability. Those trunks might be Indian red (an iron red) mixed with the old Prussian blue (now known as midnight blue) to make a warm black. Using the straight carbon black crayon made the black too stark, or so my portrait painting grandmother told me. The old “flesh color” has been renamed “peach,” in recognition of the diversity of skin color in our world today. Many other colors in the box can be combined to get the perfect shade of a person’s facial tone, no matter how light, dark, yellow, white, red, or brown. The 64 box has enough colors to capture any facial tone, for sure.
When I see the ever changing beauty of the natural world about me, I can’t help but have hope. I look back not only to simpler times, but also forward in hope to a time when once again I will feel the joy of breaking the seal of a brand new box of crayons and when I can revel in the fresh, unsullied scent of pure wax and touch with reverence the clean paper wrappers. Easter dresses always show up in the pastel colors, even if we have to toss our dark winter coats over them when the weather turns cool, as it often does.
Maybe you don’t have such a strong attachment to art supplies as I do, but surely this April is a holy season for many people, and not just for the rabbits who live among us. Some how we people of faith across the centuries and around the world respond to the annual renewal of life and the promise of hope when life seems most precarious. While my faith experience is deeply rooted in Christianity, the worldwide communities of faith respond to springtime with some common traditions.
It’s no wonder one of the great myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans dealt with the changing seasons, but also with the hope of eternal life. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture and crops, whose daughter Persephone was taken into the underworld. Hades kept her there against her will, so while Demeter grieved, the crops failed, people starved, and the gods weren’t honored. Zeus, the king of the gods, forced Hades to release Persephone, but since she had eaten a few pomegranate seeds, she had to spend part of the year underground. This set up the seasons and was the impetus for the famed Elysian Mysteries.
The week long rituals were based on a symbolic reading of the story of Demeter and Persephone. It provided initiates with a vision of the afterlife so powerful, it forever changed the way they saw their world and their place in it. They no longer feared death, for they recognized they were immortal souls temporarily in mortal bodies. In the same way Persephone went down to the land of the dead and returned to that of the living each year, so would every human being die only to live again on another plane of existence or in another body.
The spring rite was the lesser mysteries, without which one couldn’t enter the greater mysteries of autumn. Anyone who was present in the city and spoke Greek could attend, unlike some of the closed gnostic mysteries, which were available only to a chosen few. The whole community participated, for the life of the family, as well as the earth, depended on the abundance of the earth. In fact, the only paved road in Greece in ancient times was from Athens to Eleusius, and a modern road now follows the same path.
Aristotle wrote about the contrast of the cathartic experience of watching a tragic drama whereby the spectator is purged of the negative emotions of fear and pity, while an initiate of the Mysteries would undergo physical, emotional, and spiritual cleansing in preparation for the main part of the ritual— a spiritual identification with the Mother and Daughter in their separation and suffering and then joyful reunion, a transformation from death to rebirth. Through her or his own inner spiritual desires and participation in the rites, the initiate then was prepared to receive a “seeing” into the deepest mysteries of life.
This communal ritual wasn’t just for the individual, but for the family, the city state, and even the world itself. Let’s keep that idea in mind as we consider the other rituals of faith, renewal, and restoration of this spring season.
Our Vice President’s husband Doug Emhoff, 56, is the first Jewish spouse of a vice president or president. “After a year of social distancing and mask wearing, it’s impossible not to feel isolated at times. So it’s events like this one, events that creatively bring family and friends and communities together, that keep us connected and remind us that we’re not alone,” Emhoff said at the Seder ceremony before noting he got to do one of his “favorite things” and introduce the vice president.
“Our family, like so many families in the United States, the state of Israel and around the world, will begin to celebrate the sacred holiday of Passover this weekend,” Vice President Kamala Harris said. “And the Passover story is powerful. It reminds us of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of injustice. It urges us to keep the faith in the face of uncertainty.”
“This year, as we dip our greens in salt water and pour out our ceremonial wine and eat our bitter herbs, let us commit, once again, to repairing the world,” she said.
This is the great witness of the Passover story, for it’s a story of hope and liberation. It’s a story of God keeping God’s promises and God’s faithfulness for those who suffer. If anyone needs to hear words of liberation, faithfulness, hope, and promises kept, it’s our whole world, which is suffering with covid, hate, nationalism, racism, and extremism.
Passover, like many holidays, combines the celebration of an event from Jewish memory with a recognition of the cycles of nature. As the Jewish people remember their ancestors’ liberation, they also recognize the stirrings of spring and rebirth happening in the world. The symbols on the table bring together elements of both kinds of celebration. In the ritual, families take a vegetable, representing joy at the dawning of spring after a long, cold winter. Most will use a green vegetable, such as parsley or celery, but some families from Eastern Europe have a tradition of using a boiled potato, since greens were hard to come by at Passover time. Whatever symbol of spring and sustenance used, it’s dipped it into salt water, a symbol of the tears the ancestors shed as slaves. Before eating it, a short blessing is said:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, borei p’ree ha-adama.
We praise God, Ruler of Everything, who creates the fruits of the earth.
At the end of the meal, celebrants bless the final cup of wine according to Jewish tradition and law. As the faithful have had the pleasure to gather (virtually) for a seder this year, they hope to once again have the opportunity of gather in person in the years to come. The prayer is God brings health and healing to Israel and all the people of the world, especially those impacted by natural tragedy and war. As folks say every year, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Yet another spring festival is the Hindu celebration of Holi, which has been observed all over India since ancient times. Holi’s precise form and purpose displays great variety. Originally, Holi was an agricultural festival celebrating the arrival of spring. This aspect still plays a significant part in the festival in the form of the colored powders: Holi is a time when man and nature alike throw off the gloom of winter and rejoice in the colors and liveliness of spring.
Holi also commemorates various events in Hindu mythology, but for most Hindus it provides a temporary opportunity for Hindus to disregard social norms, indulge in merrymaking and generally “let loose.” The central ritual of Holi is the throwing and applying of colored water and powders on friends and family, which gives the holiday its common name “Festival of Colors.” Holi is spread out over two days (it used to be five, and in some places it is longer). A large communal bonfire burns in the town center to light the evening festivities.
The entire holiday is associated with a loosening of social restrictions normally associated with caste, sex, status and age. Holi thus bridges social gaps and brings people together: employees and employers, men and women, rich and poor, young and old. Holi is also characterized by the loosening of social norms governing polite behavior and the resulting general atmosphere of licentious merrymaking and ribald language and behavior. A common saying heard during Holi is bura na mano, Holi hai (“don’t feel offended, it’s Holi”).
This festival has transferred into western culture as part of the celebrations at the end of races and other communal bonding events, a fact which leads some to charge the west with cultural appropriation, but the followers of Holi aren’t offended if the intention is good.
While Easter in the western world has become a cultural celebration of cleaning house, redecorating, wearing new and brighter clothes, and doing brunch with lighter foods, in the Christian church, Easter still retains its central place of honor. As Henri Nouwen writes, “When Jesus was anticipating his own death he kept repeating the same theme to his disciples: “My death is good for you, because my death will bear many fruits beyond my death. When I die I will not leave you alone, but I will send you my Spirit, the Paraclete, the Counselor. And my Spirit will reveal to you who I am, what I am teaching you. My Spirit will lead you into the truth and will allow you to have a relationship with me that was not possible before my death. My Spirit will help you to form community and grow in strength.” Jesus sees that the real fruits of his life will mature after his death. That is why he adds, “It is good for you that I go.”
While Jesus did reach out to those ignored by the traditional faith community of his day, he was also concerned for the whole community over and above the individual alone. While the church, who are the “ones called out,” is composed of individuals, we’re called to gather together for worship, prayer, instruction, and to be sent out to do ministries in the name of Jesus. Some today put their personal relationship with Jesus above their relationship with the beloved community or with the suffering body of Christ, which is found in the marginalized people beyond the church door.
So along with Nouwen, we have to ask, “If that is true, then the real question for me as I consider my own death is not: how much can I still accomplish before I die, or will I be a burden to others? No, the real question is: how can I live so that my death will be fruitful for others? In other words, how can my death be a gift for my loved ones so that they can reap the fruits of my life after I have died? This question can be answered only if I am first willing to admit Jesus’ vision of death, as a valid possibility for me.”
Since Easter is the celebration of the great resurrection story, it’s the story of the renewal, not only of life, but the renewal of hope and faith. When our world looks its most bleak, we can still hope for a better future. When our God seems to have abandoned us, we can still trust in God’s unfailing promise to fulfill God’s commitments to God’s well loved people. When Mary Magdalene runs to meet the risen Christ in the garden, he tells her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”
We don’t keep good news for ourselves, but spread it to others. This is the best argument for the communal nature of resurrection faith. It should change us, so we should want to change God’s world and God’s people for the better. If we’re transformed by love, we also should transform the world with love. If we’ve been justified by the grace of God’s mercy, we should want to bring justice to marginalized communities who’ve experienced systemic injustice.
In summary, what ties all these spring festivals together is a hope for a new creation and a better life, either in this world or in the world beyond. Sometimes we need to have assurances of the life to come to live well in this life, while other times we need a hope for this world in order to live for tomorrow. Likely our faith practices speak to our deep human need for freedom and also to the need for our suffering to have meaning. Only if we change our suffering into a catalyst for relieving the suffering of others can we being these faith promises of spring renewal into reality. Then the ancient hopes of slaves, who were liberated, can come true today also. When the fears of death and life of everyday people are healed, their hopes and dreams are made possible by the power of god working through them. Then we too can sing the songs of freedom, put our energy into freeing others who are in bondage, and bring about God’s new creation, even as God’s spirit is renewing the face of the earth.
True Colors: Creating Natural Food Dyes at Home — Edible LA
Original Boxes of 64 Crayola Crayons | Jenny’s Crayon Collection
Doug Emhoff and Kamala Harris Celebrate First Passover at the White House
The Ritual Path of Initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries
(c) 2009, Mara Lynn Keller, Ph.D., California Institute of Integral Studies
The Eleusinian Mysteries: The Rites of Demeter – World History Encyclopedia
A Seder for Everyone
Holi Religion Facts
Text excerpts taken from “You are the Beloved”
by Henri J.M. Nouwen
© 2017 by The Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust.
Published by Convergent Books.