Meanings of Easter

By Sally Dougherty

For each person raised in a Christian culture, Easter has its own meanings.  A festival of dying and rising, it takes place when new growth appears after the death of winter.  There were numerous traditions of dying and rising gods or mortals all around the Mediterranean and Mideast, and in the Roman Empire they were widely known and practiced, including among the Jews.  In its formation the Christian festival drew on these traditions as well as the Jewish Passover.

Easter to many signifies immortality of the soul and human victory over sin and death.  A meaning that speaks to me concerns each person’s internal growth.  From birth to adolescence we become increasingly focused on the material world, including our bodies.  Physical and emotional needs and experiences are so absorbing that we do not view ourselves as centers of consciousness undergoing and interpreting the world.   We largely disregard our inwardness, having little sense of being one with the principle or essence that expresses itself through the entire cosmos.  To put it in terms of the Easter story, our inner self has crucified itself on the cross of physical embodiment – where the expression of its powers and awareness are limited, clouded, and enfeebled by the dominant double-whammy of outward focus and self-absorption.  As time goes by, our ordinary psychological self confronts painful events and experiences which serve to wake it up by knocking it out of the comfortable ruts of habit and unthinking complacency.  This disturbing process allows our awareness to expand and eventually to become more understanding and compassionate as it bursts the narrow bounds of self-constructed egoism.  Some speak of this process of inner change as the crucifixion of the ordinary or lower self, which must die if we are to become greater.

St. Paul said “I die daily.”  I take this to mean that our limited aspects, our smallness, may be progressively transcended as the Christ-spirit or universal awareness is born in us, transforming our ordinary humanity.  Christ here represents the spiritual heart of each person, which is crucified by our limited awareness and self-centered focus but which rises again glorified once we open ourselves to its influence and powers.  It has been said that when we identify ourselves consciously with spirit, whether we picture it as within or external, we need no longer fear death, limitation, or ignorance (which I prefer to the word “sin”).  Once we realize our oneness with the mystery behind all that is, death holds no terror.  “The dewdrop slips into the shining sea,” as Edwin Arnold wrote.  It is our attachment to being an individual drop, a specific form, which makes us fear the change of form called death.  We do not wish to lose our “selfhood,” that is, the collection of experiences, habits, feelings, thoughts, and desires that make up what we think of as ourselves.  Yet our identification with these things, and our attachment to them, must die or be released if we are to transform into something more than we are now.  Just as the seed buried in the earth must die as a seed in order to become a plant, we must burst through our limitations and accept change if we are to become more than we are now. (A talk given March 2008)