Sunday, March 27, 2005

Easter And Renewal

Today is the holiday I grew up calling "American Easter." In my Russian Orthodox household, this day -- the occasion of baskets full of chocolate eggs, jelly beans, green plastic "grass" and, as was always the case for my family, a few books dropped off by the magical spirit of the day -- was distinct from the religious celebration that would occur a few weeks later, during which we stayed up most of the night holding candles and chanting "Christ is Risen. Truly He is Risen." About once every six years or so, the "American" and "Russian" versions of the holiday would occur on the same date, meaning the chocolate eggs and the candles would mingle in our consciousness.
Although all of the other kids in my Roman Catholic neighborhood and most of the ones in my school (except for Sammy Taylor, who was Greek) went to church on American Easter in their holiday outfits, for us it was another Lenten Sunday, which just meant that the church service would be longer and more unitelligible (much of it was conducted in Old Cyrillic, the Russian church's equivalent of Latin) than usual.
But by giving us the child-friendly trappings of Easter on the American holiday, my parents -- and here I need to give all due thanks to my Mom, who led the religious charge in my family (Dad rarely went to church) -- made sure that my siblings and I didn't feel left out of the mainstream. We just got an extra holiday, one made memorable not only by the interminable all-night church vigil, but by the really good food that my mother put into a basket for blessing by the priest: Ham, eggs, cheese Paskha, raisin bread -- all things that supposedly were forbidden to us during Lent.
We never really gave up a lot during Lent. In my household, we always ate fish on Fridays; during Lent we added Wednesdays to the fish routine, and then made it special by going to the Howard Johnsons 99-cent s-for-all-you-can-eat fish fry most weeks.
Although many of my Orthodox and Catholic friends grew up with a similar Friday routine, I've never exactly understood why the denizens of the sea weren't considered on a par with the animals of the land and air, and I sometimes wonder how I would have been expected to react had I been faced with, say, a walrus steak or even a nice fillet of whale. fortunately, my childhood included no such ambiguous dinner choices. We ate tuna or cheese sandwiches for lunch on "fast" days, fried fish or macaroni and cheese for dinner.
Now that I've reminisced, I want to say something about Easter, the most important religious festival in the Eastern Orthodox church. This post is by no means meant to be either proselytizing or offensive to non-Christians. It's just a way to express some thoughts that are linked in my mind.
Easter and spring arrive at roughly the same time, and I am sure -- although this morning I'm feeling too lazy to do any research -- that the timing is not by coincidence. Those early Christians were nothing if not adept at co-opting the dates and rites of earlier pagan festivals in order to win over the hoi polloi.
So, what we have here is a holiday that in many senses is about renewal: Christ's promise of redemption for humanity coupled with the renewal of the land after the harshness of winter. Even here in southern California, spring is a special time, marked by a riot of blooming flowers and fresch scents. The orange blossoms outside my door are wonderful this time of year. And, this year at least, we're looking forward to the rains of winter giving way to warm, sunny days.
Of course, every bright day must have its dark cloud, and the inevitable one these days is the George W. Bush administration. In particular, the issue here is the Bush administration's environmental policies, which I believe say, "Up Yours!" to God in just the same way the administration's foreign policies say, "Up Yours!" to the world at large. A few weeks ago, the Republicans voted to allow oil exploration in Arctic wilderness. They've promoted measures to benefit dirty industries by weakening environmental regulations. They've promulgated a war in the Middle East to ensure that Americans can continue to be mindlessly wasteful of oil.
I received in the mail yesterday a copy of Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses, a new translation with commentary of the Pentateuch. In reading through the first two chapters, in which the creation is recounted in two slightly divergent ways, I see that in Alter's translation, as in every other I know, humans are given "dominion" over the earth. Etymoligically, dominion shares a Latin root with "domination" and means control. Some commentators, such as that spawn of Satan Ann Coulter, have argued that this gives humans the right to do as they wish with the fruits of the Earth. (In Coulter's words on Hannity & Colmes, June 20, 2001: "God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'")
I believe that attitude is similar to one that would have you wipe your ass on the Christmas sweater your blind Grandma knitted for you -- only inestimably worse. It is the ultimate blasphemy.
Anyone who believes that the world is God's creation should necessarily understand that such a gift deserves our respect. We owe it to God and to ourselves to take care of this gift, to keep it in good condition, to pass it on so that future generations can be awed by its wonders as we have been.
I know that some on the religious right would argue that we have no need to conserve the environment because End Times are near. To that I would say in return that I don't recall anywhere in the Bible where it is stated that we should fatten ourselves up by consuming and excreting God's creation just because it may be our last chance to do so. If I'm not mistaken, that attitude is called hedonism -- the notion that pleasure is a worthy moral value -- and was associated with some ancient Greek philosophies but not, to my knowledge, Christianity or Judaism.
Here's my point: Easter is as good a time as any, and better than most, to reflect on the wondrous Earth that we inhabit. If we believe in the resurrection, in God, in the hope of salvation, we need to understand that respect for God's creation is a huge part of that picture. Take a few minutes out to think about acts of respect, ways in which we can help to preserve and pay respect to this greatest of gifts. Ways to keep the air cleaner, the water more clear, the animals and vegetation that share the Earth with us healthier. It's what we owe to God in return for his gifts.
All of us do things that are harmful to the environment. We drive cars, run the air conditioning, smoke cigarettes. It would be awfully difficult to stop all of that. But by reflecting on small measures we can take -- hang those clothes out to dry in the sun today, instead of running the dryer -- we can collectively make a difference.
Spring gives us the sensory pleasures of color and warmth and scent to help us understand how much this Earth is worth preserving. For Christians at least, Easter gives us reason to believe it may be our duty to do so.
Let Bush and Coulter give their "Up Yours!" to God and his creation.
For the rest of us, it's a great day to stop and say both "Thank you" and "What can I do to help?"