A Homily for Easter Sunday
by Bishop Steven Marshall
Easter is the major moveable feast of the liturgical year. It may fall on any Sunday between March 22nd and April 23rd. The date of Easter accords with the date of the Jewish festival of the Passover which is based upon the old lunar calendar. By this method of calculation the date of Easter is the Sunday nearest the first full moon following the spring equinox. The spring season in which Easter occurs, with its renewal of life following winter, bears out a synchronous relationship with the resurrection theme in the mythic story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We find at this great Christian festival a conjunction between the the cycles of nature and the mythic cycle of the liturgical year, a conjunction between microcosm and macrocosm, a conjunction between the interior, mythic dimension of reality and the outer dimension of the cycles of life. Because of this, many of the symbols that we associate with Easter, such as chicks, Easter eggs and rabbits, are fertility symbols representing the renewal and proliferation of life in spring.
The name of this festival derives from an Anglo-Saxon fertility Goddess named Oestara. Other related Goddesses are Isis of the Egyptians, Ishtar of the Assyrians, Astarte of the Babylonians and Tara of the Irish. All of these Goddesses have province over the night sky, the moon and the earth. They have both a celestial and starry aspect as well as an earthly aspect.
Sophia also has a celestial, transcendent aspect and an earthly, immanent aspect. The earthly aspect of Sophia relates to the Holy Spirit which “remains here on earth to guide and care for us.” She is the Spirit that gives life and sustains the life of all creatures on earth unto their redemption. Sophia also has a celestial, starry and transcendent aspect. She represents the light beyond the stars. In this mode of symbolism, the ancients imagined the night sky to be like a bowl full of holes through which the sea of light beyond shone through as the stars. Sophia as the Light of the Stars becomes the Star-Kindler, the Queen of the Stars, the Queen of Heaven. The Queen of Heaven is a title not only for the aspect of Sophia represented in the Blessed Virgin Mary but also for the historic figures of Isis, Astarte and Ishtar. She is both Earth’s Mother and Heaven’s Queen.
In the same fashion we must approach the mythic event of the resurrection of Jesus on more than one level. We must not succumb to the easy conclusion that the symbolism of the death and resurrection of Christ, the dying and renewing God, is nothing more than an image of earthly fertility and cyclical life. Because the story of the resurrection comes from the mythic dimension of reality, it transcends in great measure the limitations of earthly cycles and nature; there is indeed a great deal more to it. The cyclical rise and fall of vegetation through the cycle of the seasons, the death and resurrection of Christ, does not have tremendous meaning as the fertility of the earth but has its deeper and more profound meaning in the fertility and creativity of the human spirit.
Although many of the Gnostic scriptures abound in agricultural allegories, particularly in the Gospel of Philip, Gnostics are not so much concerned with the outer and ongoing cycles of death and renewal in nature but with the inner resurrection of the human spirit, the liberation and rising up of that immortal spark of the divine light within us. However, this inner resurrection is not entirely restricted to the human sphere; like the Buddhists, with their compassion for all forms of sentient life, we, as Gnostics, also look to the liberation and gathering of the sparks of light among all sentient beings, whatever their place on the spiral of manifest life. Yet before we can assist in the liberation of other forms of life, we must ourselves seek liberation and the resurrection while in this flesh. As the Gospel of Philip states in regard to the Resurrection, “If you do not receive it while in this place, you will not receive it in the other place.” The inner resurrection is the gnosis of the immortal light-spark within us, a conscious recollection of one’s own divine heritage and immortal being.
Like the other mystery religions, such as those of Eleusis and Sais, the Gnostics had a method for achieving this inner resurrection. As in the mysteries of old, the Gnostic practice of the mysteries gave a conscious realization of one’s immortality. In the mysteries of Eleusis this realization came forth in the vision of the Goddess Kore, in Egypt the vision of the Saitic Isis. Among the Alexandrian Gnostics it accompanied a vision of Sophia and a communion with the Resurrected One.
Easter represents a mystical experience of death and resurrection, not the celebration of an historical event. Something mysterious and miraculous happened; the disciples and early Gnostic writers experienced something, and yet the actual nature of the outward and historical event is not important to the Gnostic. There has never been, even in the gospel accounts, any agreement as to exactly what happened. We must approach these themes as interior and mystical events that can have meaning and reality for us today. We must ourselves experience this mystical death and resurrection as an interior and timeless reality. The Acts of St John record the mystical words of Jesus, “Understand me then as the slaying of a Word, wound of a Word, hanging of a Word, suffering of a Word, fastening of a Word, death of a Word, resurrection of a Word, and defining this Word, I mean every man!”
We do not celebrate the death and miraculous animation of the physical body of one man in history but our own apotheosis and resurrection as a reality in this life. Belief in an historical event is not going to change anything in us. The mysteries of Gnosis are not of this world; they are in the world but not of the world. This is nowhere more true than in the mystery of the Resurrection.
The Gnostics and disciples experienced not a dead Jesus but a Living Jesus, a spiritual not a physical being. The gospel accounts give ample evidence that the resurrected body was not the same as the physical body. In the Gospel of Philip we read, “The Lord rose from the dead. He became as he used to be, but now his body was perfect. He did indeed possess flesh, but this is true flesh. Our flesh is not true, but we possess only an image of the true.” The canonical gospels indicate that the resurrected Jesus was not recognized as the physical resemblance he bore during his incarnation. In the Gospel of St John Mary Magdalen does not recognize him until he speaks her name. In the Gospel of St Luke the father of James and Jude and another disciple do not recognize Jesus until he breaks bread with them.
We are dealing here with an interior experience of a transcendent reality. The resurrection story from the Gospel of St Matthew describes two angels at the open tomb. The presence of angels indicates that the teller of the story is recounting a visionary experience, an experience of an alternative reality. The angels say to the women at the tomb, “Why seek ye the living among the dead. He is not here; He has risen, as He said.” The words of the angels suggest that the Living Jesus is not in an history that is dead and gone. If we look for the resurrection in an historical event we are still seeking the living among the dead.
The Jewish mystical writings of the Zohar describe the resurrection as a spiritual phenomena, the resurrection of bodies of light nourished by the milk of the Holy Spirit.
“The complete resurrection will begin in Galilee. The resurrection of bodies will be as the uprising of flowers. There will be no more need of eating and drinking, for we shall all be nourished by the Glory of the Shekinah.”
The Gnostic resurrection is something that can happen while one is in this world. In the Egyptian mysteries Horus, as the initiate into the mysteries, describes the resurrection as being filled with light: “My whole body is filled with light; there is no part of me that is not a god; I am divine in every part.”
St Paul sums up the inner resurrection in this portion of his First Epistle to the Corinthians.
“But some will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, and thou sowest not that body that shall be, but God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
At Easter our life and our perception of the world is given the opportunity to change. All things are made new. We arise from a world of periodical death and decay into a timeless and immortal realm of spirit. The permanent and indelible effect of the inner resurrection is that it forever delivers the human consciousness from the fear of bodily death. When you see your soul with your own eyes, when you know who you are and from whence you have come, when you see your star shining immortal in the heavens, then death is surely swallowed up in victory, and we can say with all the Gnostics and knowers of the truth before us, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.