When I was a young child nurtured in the Methodist Church in Earle, Arkansas, the word “dead” meant nothing to me. But “rose from the dead,” that was something captivating, a phrase I heard far, far more often than just the word. Every Sunday, in fact, I learned to proclaim as an article of faith that Jesus, on the third day, “rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven.” Resurrection.
A six-year-old makes what she will of words and concepts she doesn’t understand. And that is what I did. Because “resurrection” was accompanied by pictures of a risen Christ in white robes, moving toward a light-filled heaven, arms reaching out for me, I could tell that the word meant “life.” I reached in return for Jesus, and for the promise. From the beginning, for me, Jesus was life.
My parents taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be. Even now, I can hear my father saying it, again and again. At the same time, the church taught me that God loved me and would help me grow up into a good person, a loving individual, doing meaningful things, someone to be proud of. God was love. I believed in God. I believed in Jesus. Love and Life.
Much has changed since those days in Earle. Schools and degrees; jobs at home and overseas; marriages – two of those; children and grandchildren. Many joys; many hardships. Through it all, I have grown familiar with the word “dead.” Death, disappointment, disease – I know about them now. And, of course, I know more about life and love as well. Unlike the little girl in Earle, who had never met an atheist or a Jew or a Greek Orthodox or a Catholic or even an Episcopalian or a Lutheran, I have fallen in love with at least one of each of them in my adult life. I observed how their faiths – practicing or not – had molded their hearts in compassion. I could see the light of God shining through them, even as they might not have named it so. The circle of my understanding grew wide and my spirit began to throw off the bonds of exclusivity.
I see now that much of what I’ve learned is reflected in the spirit of the Easter season. Like so many Christian festivals, Easter mirrors pagan images. The etymology of the very word “Easter” is thought to be rooted in Ēostre, Easter’s namesake, goddess of the dawn, bringer of light. I have heard pagan stories of resurrected gods. In the Bible I read that the revered Elijah and Elisha were said to have raised people from the dead. I wondered how information such as that would change my former view of the one-and-only-resurrected Jesus. I wondered if the light that shines through those ancient stories is the same light that Jesus brought into the world.
I must be open to this thought. The only other choice for me is to be closed. Once open, it is as difficult to shut the door against the inpouring energy of Love as to hold back tsunami waters. My experience of Easter continues to change and I must change with it. Back home in Earle the surest physical sign of Easter Sunday was the powerful fragrance of lilies filling the church sanctuary. Now there can be no lilies: too many pollen allergies among the congregation. And the truth is, lilies don’t bloom naturally at Easter. But I can surely find them at other times, in other places. I just breathe deeply and then I know where to look.
Susan Little is the author of Disciple: A Novel of Mary Magdalene.