The other evening a fellow cleric asked me what I thought was the essence of a Gnostic reading of Easter. Leaving aside the canonical response (since one of the crucial aspects of a Gnostic theological position is the individual discernment of the person, we’re prone to asking “What do you think?”), I came up with a couple of thoughts which I thought might be useful to share.
Easter is pretty much the crux (pun intended) of the liturgical year for exoteric, orthodox Christianity. It’s the remembrance of the moment in history when a human being named Jesus (or if you want to be slightly fussy and pedantic, Yeshua) who was simultaneously also God, was betrayed by one of his followers, persecuted by his own people, executed, died and, in the quintessential miracle of the Christian Gospel, after a couple of days rose back to physical, embodied life.
As Gnostics, we tend to make non-literal readings of all scripture. These readings might be poetic or symbolic or they might be inner, esoteric or mystical readings. In any case, since the orthodox views of Easter are so very well documented, let’s take them as read and look at some other ways to understand the festival.
One way to approach the story of Easter is in the context of the cycle of the liturgical year. This is the annual cycle of festivals that make up the church calendar starting at Advent (the solemn season before Christmas), then Christmas, the new year, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and through the “ordinary” time to Advent again, peppered with Saint’s days throughout. There are many ways to understand the liturgical year, but a popular way for Gnostics to grasp it is as a symbolic analogue of the journey of the individual seeker: from puzzlement or roadlessness (aporia) to the initial flash of insight (epiphany) to the dark night of the soul to theosis.
In this mystical reading, Good Friday is the culmination of the dark night and Easter Sunday is the inbreaking of God – the beginning of theosis which culminates in the Ascension.
Another way to understand Easter that I particularly like involves dwelling on what we can learn from the Person of Christ. There’s a longer post in there on ways to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, but for the moment I want to dwell on the way I understand the Person of Christ.
Much of the controversy among different traditions in fourth century Christianity arose from arguments about the nature of Jesus Christ. Was he Divine? Was he human? Did he have a material body or was he pure spirit? Did he have two natures or one nature? Was he of one being with the Father or not?
While communities of substantial size (notably, the Arians and the Nestorians) made their own decisions on these questions, the central communities that dominated in Constantinople and Rome felt that these questions were important enough to warrant the kind of painstakingly clear, doctrinal statement found in the Creed of St Athanasius. Jesus Christ was fully human and fully Divine, of one Being with the Father.
For those of us taking a Gnostic view, this means that all human beings are of one being with the Father, though we may be lost and not realise it. By setting foot upon the Path and putting on the mind of Christ, we come to see that which has always been true. Crucially, in this view, the Person of Christ is not just manifest within, as me, it’s also manifest to me as you… and that guy over there in the annoying sports car and that lady over the back with the stupid hat and the hated person at work who took my promotion. All Divine, no separation.
That’s all fine and while radical to put into practice is not a terribly radical idea. All of us are Divine is a very popular idea these days. The Gospel takes an extra step.
In the Gospel story Jesus dies. Gives up the ghost and dies, is taken down and buried. Now here’s a trick. Fully human, fully Divine, of One Being with the Father, does that stop, do you suppose, at death? When a person ceases to be a living being and becomes matter?
I feel that the Gospel story is telling us that just as the Life of Christ indicates to us the Divine nature of humanity, the Death of Christ is telling us that even matter itself is not separate from God. This is one way to begin to grasp the sanctification of the material world, to acknowledge the radiance of the Divine in the places where it is so evident: in the sea, the sky, galaxies seen through telescopes, crystals seen through microscopes, in snowflakes, in cliffs and mountains, lakes and streams.
One way to understand Easter is in the kind of paradoxical way that Jesus loved so much in his teaching. Perhaps we look in vain for sacred places, especially holy times of the year, especially saintly people in our attempt to “find God”. Perhaps the story of Easter emphasises to us that the divine is everpresent: everywhere, eternally, in every person and that our journey of seeking is not looking endlessly for the place that God is, but acknowledging the truth the Hermetic literature speaks so elegantly: There is nothing which is not God.
How do we come to notice that truth? Perhaps that’s the challenge of Holy Week.
Happy Easter! Stay off the roads and go easy on the chocolate.