As you know, I believe that all mythologies and deities have many riches to offer us as companions, guides and teachers, and Jesus and the richness of the Christian philosophies have as much to offer as any other. Easter is one of the Christian festivals (along with Christmas, and Candlemas, for me personally) which have a richness and depth that seem to transcend the human-invented paths that we may choose to follow and tap into something deeper, richer, echoing human connections with the times and rhythms of the seasons. Like these others, I find it no coincidence that so many paths celebrate similar themes at similar times of year.
It does not surprise me at all that the date of Easter is firmly linked to the Spring Equinox and the full Moon, times of turbulence, fruition, things returning to balance. Just look at the uprising we’re currently seeing around us! Again, we can see that the physical world of the natural seasons is at the heart of our diverse spiritualities and our daily lives whether it’s immediately obvious or not.
This Easter, I found out about something new (forgive me if it’s not new to you, I’m perpetually late to the party) and I have been struck by it’s depth and significance, and it’s potential power as a personal ritual, to tap into the beautiful, mystical, Gnostical notion of the Christ Within. It’s the Easter service of Tenebrae. The exact rendering of it differs from church to church, as you’d imagine, but in essence it’s this.
Starting on a day before Easter, a number of candles are lit – one for each reading from the Bible of Jesus’s journey to his death on the cross and subsequent entombment. As each reading is completed, a candle is snuffed out, until the last candle is extinguished as Jesus dies on the cross.
Each reading, at heart, contains a hurt. A betrayal. A lie, in fear of authority. A deference to the brutal status quo. A denial of all that is good. For each of these, a light in the world is extinguished. It made me think about our own wounds we receive through life, large or small, deep cuts or slight bruises, that hurt our sense of self; our sense of agency; our sense of worth. Every time we receive one of these, it can feel as if a bit of us is snuffed out.
I feel such an echo of this in the current Xtinction Rebellion protest. A vicar was reported in the news, saying that Jesus would have been there. I think a lot of people took this to mean the angry Jesus, the rebel Jesus, the authority-defying Jesus, the kicker-over-of-tables Jesus. But I think also it is the spirit of the betrayed and the hurt and the bewildered Jesus, who pleads with his Father, disbelievingly ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’. This is what I see and hear around me as people slowly become aware of what damage is being done – and yes, as we all own our own part in causing that damage merely by being born into the time and place and culture that we have been. We feel let down, we feel bitter, we feel powerless and hurt.
In the end, of course, inevitably, Jesus dies and the last candle is snuffed out. At this point, a ‘strepitus’ or loud noise is struck in the now-complete darkness.
In my deep imagination I sense this sound to be a feeling as well as a sound. A dolorous blow. A marker between a state of being that was, and the dawning awareness that something has terribly, irrevocably changed. The sound of a car crash. The sound of bad news. The sound of a cell door. The sound of a voce saying ‘no’ and being ignored. The feeling of a nothing, where once there was something. Or maybe it’s the sound of peace songs being sung at policemen and women, who are working hard to do what’s right by their own lights, just as we all do. Maybe it’s the sound of a live Facebook broadcast, or of a lock being snapped tight to the chassis of a lorry, or an offer of help, or the voice of a well-trained de-escalation crew.
Either way, the stone has been rolled across the door of the cave, and we are trapped within, alone, dead or dying in the dark. Or at least a part of us is – and as we know, mythically and in our hearts from stories, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
So this part of the Tenebrae leads me to my big question of the week, which I had honestly never thought about before. What actually happens to Jesus in there, in those 3 days? We don’t know, the bible certainly doesn’t tell us. Is he even in there? What bit of him is in there? Does he journey to the underworld and then return? Is he banging on the gates of heaven, pleading to be allowed to stay for ever? There’s no denying, whatever happened in there this is powerful magic, because whatever it is, it brings Jesus back to life – even better than before! He’s no longer human, he’s embraced his divinity. We can tell we are talking about real shit here, because the cave of course pops up all over the place as the cauldron, the chalice, the place of transformation, the alchemical vessel. I am really entranced by this question, I keep returning to it. What does it mean for me personally, for us in our world at this time? What’s the cave magic that’s brewing?
In the very old days, when Christianity was very probably a mystery religion, there were the bits that everyone knew, the bits that initiates knew, and the bits that everyone was supposed to experience and find out for themselves, understanding that each person would learn the lessons that they needed to bring themselves closer to their divinity within.
I think that what happens in the cave is this – it’s another version of needing to die to yourself in the underworld in order to arise anew. It is very personal,, and will not look the same for any two people, though we might share an experience or two.
I’ve been confronted with a few semi-dolorous blows this week. The resurfacing of old hurts and wounds; the growing grief at what is happening to our world which is what happens when you start to look it fully in the face (and is the sanest of responses); a few realisations of why I have not acted up until now and my own personal challenges in starting to do more. I’m sure you have all had your own.
In some services, the Tenebrae happens on Good Friday, and that part of the church is left until Easter Sunday when it is then reopened, the stone is metaphorically rolled away, and one candle is relit to symbolise the return and resurrection of Jesus.
But he’s not in the cave! Somehow, magically he has got out. He’s just mysteriously wandering around out there, appearing and incarnating to various people, but not really explaining himself. Reading the gospels, even they seem at a loss to describe this newly-risen Jesus. He’s with one person, then another. He tells us to look in nonsensical places. He speaks in koans, riddles, and is generally a bit of a mischievous tease. He is, truly a Mystery semi-incarnate.
I’m clearly not yet an initiate, as this part of the story and this aspect of the post-human, post-Earthly Jesus remains an even bigger mystery to me than the cave time. I haven’t got a nice neat parable to wrap up my wonderings. I think I might still be in the cave, maybe Plato’s cave, where we mistake the shadows on the wall for the real world. I have a sense of chinks of light around the edge of the boulder. Tantalising and annoying, like an itch you can’t quite reach. But yet again I’m reminded that the process and the journey are the thing that matters for humans, whether we ever reach a destination or not, assuming we’d know what it looked like if we got there…
What I do know, is that it’s a comfort to know that this necessary cave time, the continual dying and resurrection of ourselves, to ourselves, and from one time or culture to another has many roadmaps and templates to show us the way. We might not know exactly what we’ll see when we emerge from the cave, but we can try and trust that it will be better and give us much hope.
With love, and with thanks to the seasons for my unfolding knowledge.