This week we celebrate Mary Magdalene, one of the truly great women we meet in the Holy Scriptures. There is a myth, I have heard loudly proclaimed, that Christianity seeks to subordinate women. Now, it may be true that over the centuries the Church has done this, but Christianity itself, I would argue, honours holy women equally to holy men. Genesis 1:27 'So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.' Jesus defends women in Matthew 9, 15, 26, Mark 14, Luke 10, 13, John 4 and 8 from the unfair criticism of the men around them. Paul, so often quoted by those who would put women on a lesser stage, cites a number of woman in church as “my co-workers” inferring their equality with him in the proclamation of the Gospel. We are all equally God's children, and equally loved and honoured by God's grace.
In history, there have been eras of empires, of city-states, of tribes and nations. Right now, in the developed western nations at least, I would suggest we are living in the era of the individual. We are no longer great communities of commonwealth or common purpose. We are a great bunch of loners looking out for 'number one'. And I cannot escape the feeling that we are strangling our poor earth trying to generate the resources to meet all those individual desires.
Australia is a bit behind the eight ball on this, too. Of all the developed nations, we have the most space to spread ourselves out. In European and United States Cities, and the new age of rapidly developing cities in Asia, people have to utilize public transport and shared facilities much more. There just isn't the space to have it all amassed around us, the way we do. 30% less British people own cars than Australians per capita, and none of the major European countries have car ownership rates equal to Australia's.
Individual freedom and life-satisfaction have become the overall goals of our culture. We have talked about the 'me generation' for years, but I think we need to move beyond seeing that as simply the way people are in the world around us, it is really the whole basis of our culture. Would you like to try to guess how many shopping centres there are in Melbourne? And the biggest ones are still expanding. It appears we cannot exist without the ability to purchase any item that takes our fancy, and within an easy driving distance. There is an election coming up. Be truthful with yourself – when you consider who you are going to vote for – are you thinking about what is best for our society, or which party will give you what you want?
Social organisations are struggling for membership – it is not just the church – Service Clubs, Freemasonary, Scouts, Guides, all these previously strong organisations that gathered people together in a social commitment, are now experiencing dwindling memberships. The Anglican Boys' Society (CEBS) and Girls Friendly Society that, in my childhood, filled Anglican Church Halls throughout our suburbs have all but ceased to exist.
The thought that disturbs me the most about all this is that I do not think everybody getting everything they want actually makes their lives or world better.
Firstly, everybody cannot get everything they want. Everybody wants different things. One neighbour might want to enjoy loud music or games, while another wants peace and quiet. Half the car drivers in Melbourne want a clear and easy run to work between 8 and 9 every weekday. Then home again at 5. More than half of them want to park and shop at the local supermarket at 10 am on Saturday. Look, I do not have to go on too much for you to think about all the ways we battle each other daily to mark out our little patch of life.
Jesus said 'love your neighbour'. I think in many people's minds, that just means try to get along with them. Do we ever really think about what we might sacrifice to truly live by such a commandment? It is not just about them. It is about what you yourself are prepared to do, to give up, or to share to make their life better.
Because God really likes irony. I am sure of it. If everybody concentrated on what they could give away, think about it. We would all be the richest we have ever been. There would be millions of fellow humans wanting you to be happy and have a good life. In the world's 'looking out for number one' way, there was only one person looking out for you.
Read the Book of Acts, chapter 2, verses 37 to 47, and chapter 4:32 to 5:11. That was the original Christian community. Their attitude to possessions seems strange to us today, but that was a community that really cared for each other. The first officials in that society were the deacons, whose job it was to see that everybody got their fair share of the food (Acts 6:1-6).
I think it is one of the great miracles of Christianity, when it happens. People stop putting themselves first. They think about the needs surrounding them first. The more they then do about seeing those needs are met, the better their world becomes. The better their world becomes, the more able they become to meet the needs surrounding them. And on and on it goes.
Unfortunately, the Church itself, for both fair and unfair reasons, has come to be seen by the wider community as a self-interested body. An organisation impelled by the very self-serving qualities it should be opposed to. Perhaps the Christian Church's greatest task ahead to to reverse this perception. We are supposed to be caring for the world and loving our neighbour. How many of our neighbours see us as working for those ends?
I return to what I think of my personal 'wisdom statement':
Your value in this world lies not in what you have. It lies in what you give.
EGGS AND BUNNIES
Now that Easter has passed, let me confide that every Easter somebody asks me, “What do eggs and bunnies have to do with Easter?” The easy answer is – nothing. Easter is of course the celebration of Christ's death and resurrection, the sacrificial act of God in bringing about the salvation of humanity. You know all this because you have been listening to my preaching for the last eight weeks. (Haven't you?)
The longer answer is that they are symbols that have been adopted into the Christian understanding of Easter, only, unfortunately, to be hi-jacked by the world of commerce to wrest some more dollars from your clutches. The thing we need to accept is that they have become so enmeshed with the popular idea of Easter that we are probably saddled with them for good.
So, where did they arise from?
Religious practices of decorating eggs precedes Christianity by many thousands of years. Ostrich eggs with engraved decoration that are as much as 60,000 years old have been found in Africa. Decorated ostrich eggs, and representations of ostrich eggs in gold and silver, were commonly placed in graves of the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians as early as 5,000 years ago.
The earliest decorated eggs in Christianity were in Mesopotamia (today's Iran) where eggs were dyed red to represent the blood shed by Christ at his crucifixion. An ancient legend that may be behind this practice arose in the Eastern Church that Mary Magdalene was bringing cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Jesus, and the eggs in her basket miraculously turned brilliant red when she saw the risen Christ. Some icons of Mary represent her carrying an egg. Another tradition is that the egg represents the boulder of the tomb of Jesus. When Greek Easter arrives in May, look in Greek Bakers to see flat plaited loaves with a red egg baked into their centre.
This custom of red eggs spread to the western church in the Middle Ages, but was adapted to make the eggs represent the resurrection. In many European traditions, eggs are painted, dyed or printed with extremely intricate designs and patterns. When I visited Sweden in 1979, I was roped in to paint designs on eggs, which were then hung in a tree, much as we decorate trees at Christmas. As my Swedish is negligible, I never understood the reasons given to me for this tradition.
The egg has been a symbol of life for most world cultures. Creation myths as far spread as Egypt, India, Asia and the Pacific islands involve an egg, laid by a cosmic serpent or bird, breaking open, in some cases the emerging yolk becoming the sun, to spill life into the world. In legends such as that of the phoenix, the egg represented resurrection or recreation, as the bird bursts into fire, then emerges from its own egg in the ashes. Such traditions appear to lay behind the Christian adoption of the egg as a symbol of Christ's resurrection.
A much simpler tradition about the Easter Egg is that eggs were a food that was not eaten in the Lenten Fast. For this reason, pancakes are made on Shrove Tuesday before Lent begins, to clear away the eggs in the pantry. At Easter, to celebrate the end of the Lent and the breaking of the fast, eggs were a central part of the feast.
A point to remember in all this is that every one of the egg symbolisms I have written of here are traditions, legends or folklore. None has any basis in the Biblical story of Easter. As symbols, however, they play a role in reminding us of the meaning of Easter. As life emerges from a lifeless egg, so Christ emerged from the lifeless tomb. Christ's sweet gift to the world was to be redeemed by our God, and given the gift of eternal life. Breaking an Easter Egg and tasting the sweet chocolate melt in your mouth is fine – if you remember the divine gift it symbolises.
The Easter Bunny, originally the Easter Hare, that distributes the Easter Eggs, appears also to have found its way into the Christian Easter tradition from more ancient folklores and myths. Because of their ability to procreate rapidly, the hare and rabbit have been considered a life or fertility symbol in most cultures that knew them. Oestre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring was depicted having the head of a hare, and most scholars believe was the major influence in the origin of the myths of the Easter Hare. In the northern hemisphere, of course, Easter always occurs in Spring. The happy coincidence then is that as buds emerge on trees, and life re-emerges after the snows of Winter, Christians celebrate Christ's life emerging from the tomb.
In some European traditions around the time of the Reformation, the Easter hare acted as a sort of judge, assessing whether children had been good over Lent, and rewarding the well-behaved child with eggs, sweets and even toys. In this, the character bore notable resemblance to the Santa Claus myths arising about the same time, of bringing rewards on the eve of their festival.
So there we have it. Both symbols gathered up by Christian communities and given a role in teaching and reminding us of the meaning of Easter. Enjoy any sweet Easter treats you have remaining, and let the lingering sweet taste of chocolate remind you of the gift of love God offered you on that first Easter.
Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)