Saturday, April 19, 2014

Awaken the Dawn

I didn't know at first what the theme or the song for today was going to be. There's very little in scripture about the Saturday before Easter. It does say that was the day that those who had Jesus crucified were concerned about his statement about rising in three days. So on the Sabbath, they stationed soldiers at the tomb in case some of the zealous followers of Jesus attempted to steal the body or something. Meanwhile all the Jews were resting and observing the Sabbath as far as we know. I did find it interesting that it was Jesus' enemies rather than his followers who were thinking about Jesus' predicted resurrection and taking action. So I thought there could be something in there to write about. Then I thought about a day between occurrences, where your God is dead and nothing is happening. I considered using the U2 song "Wake Up, Dead Man." But this felt like repeating themes I'd already dealt with.

So instead, the song for today is actually the song that inspired this whole week's project. I was walking home from the library and was reminded of this song. It called to mind the idea of "rising" and what that means in the context of Easter. So today's song is "Let it Rise".

I decided that for today's theme, we would look at some of the pagan origin of Easter. The word "Easter" comes from the Old English or Anglo-Saxon Eastre or Eostre. It's related to the Germanic Ostara. From what little research I did, Eastre was a Teutonic goddess of spring, celebrated by pagan peoples in pre-Christian Western Europe. There's very little surviving documentation of some of these things in pre-Christian Europe. In fact, there's exactly one source that mentions anything at all about Eostre, and that's a 7th Century source, after these lands had been converted. However, etymologists and philologists have examined early European language and have come to some general deductions.

From what we can tell, Eastre was a goddess of spring, in so far as there was a month dedicated to her. Much as our days of the week are named after Norse gods or veneration of heavenly bodies, so too our month of April was once Eosturmonath, that is, Eostre-month. It has been theorized that Eastre was a goddess of the dawn. The root whence comes her name means "dawn", and our present English word "east" likely also derives from the direction of the sunrise. I'll try not to get too heavy into words and things, which I find fascinating, but which can be dry or confusing to others. But it seems likely that she was some sort of bringer of the dawn for these European pagans.

It's worthwhile to think about Jesus and our modern Easter celebration in connection to the rising of the dawn. For while there are Christians who balk at the name Easter (preferring, for example, Resurrection Day for their church services), the name has stuck and there are interesting parallels to be made. Jesus rises from the dead very early in the morning, much like the sun itself. In fact, he rises on the day pagans chose to honor the sun: Sunday. I want to be clear: I am not promoting some kind of Christian paganism saying we should worship the sun. Nor am I saying it to write off Christianity as just another silly belief structure with the same basic ideas as superstitious paganism. But metaphorically, Jesus rises like the sun on Easter morning and I find that compelling.

This connection continues in scripture with Messianic prophecies in Malachi. Malachi speaks of the coming Day of the Lord and says that to those who fear the Lord, God will send the "Sun of Righteousness" who shall "arise with healing in his wings". Some translations are on the side of it just being the sun itself, and mention healing in its rays or beams, while other translations personify this Sun of Righteousness and speak of it with male pronouns. If we take the personified Sun as the truer reading, than it may be referring to Jesus. This is the reading that Charles Wesley took when he wrote the popular Christmas carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." The third verse begins, "Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in His wings." If this reading is correct, then the Bible pictures Jesus as being like the sun, rising with healing for God's people. Doesn't this fit nicely with Easter, on which Jesus rises early in the morning? In fact, Wesley's whole song reflects an idea of the sky ringing with God's glory. He didn't write the lyric "Hark, the herald angels sing". After all, the Bible never says the angels sang, and later the lyric says "with angelic hosts proclaim". What Wesley wrote was "Hark how all the welkin ring," welkin being an old-style word for the skies. It's a song about how at Christ's coming, the heavens ring with glory, and then Wesley invites us to join in with the "triumph of the skies."

While we don't want to begin actually worshipping the heavenly bodies, the Bible does say that the heavens declare the glory of God. We don't worship the creation itself, but it does point to the Creator. Every morning when that sun rises brings new mercies. In several psalms, David writes of how he will sing praise to the Lord. He writes "I will awaken the dawn!" At the rising of the day he will praise the Lord and perhaps his very praise begins the day. It's a strong verbal image. What I find really cool is that David writes this from a cave, after being delivered from Saul. David was in hiding in a cave, and his life was uncertain. But he was able to emerge and say "Awake, my glory!" Jesus, the Son of David, was entombed in a cave, and awoke to glory with the dawn on Easter Sunday.

Other random secular symbols and traditions of Easter have unknown origins. We don't know that Eastre was a fertility goddess, but may have had some connection to life and spring. But we maintain eggs and rabbits for this season, natural reminders of the propagation of life. For Christians, Easter is also about the newness of life. It is about a second birth. The Christian message is also one of propogation, not of literal reproduction, but of making disciples, and thus spiritually creating more sons and daughters of God.

There are neopagans today who have reverted to acknowledging Ostara or Eastre in their practice. I pray they come to serve the true Sun of Righteousness. "The heavens declare the glory of God" say the Scriptures, so this Easter season let's allow that glory to rise among us. Not every "rising" this season need to be a physical getting up or reviving from death. There's also the simple rising of a light in the darkness, of songs that rise to heaven. We don't have to venerate some Teutonic goddess this holiday season, but I encourage you to look at the sunrise on Easter morning as a reminder of the Light of the World that we worship. I'm reminded of an old Sunday School song that says, "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam." We can spread that light like a city on a hill, and spread life abundantly throughout our land. THAT's a fertility message I can get behind. On the Sabbath, all is at rest. But the next week brings a new start, and joy comes in the morning. May the literal sunrise remind you of the Son-rise, and inspire songs of praise. Join the triumph of the skies! Oh, let it rise!

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