In every culture there are stories of rebirth and resurrection in the springtime, myths to explain the turning of the year from winter to spring, to give assurance that it will happen again this year as it had the year before and the year before. In ancient times winters were long and hard and dangerous. Starvation and death from disease were very near and the cold was difficult to keep away. With the springtime earth once again became kindly and fruitful, and with the rebirth of living things that had seemed dead there seemed even a hint of a promise that death itself might not be final.
Once upon a time, long ago in Greece, the goddess of the crops and harvest, Demeter, had a most beautiful daughter. Persephone was so lovely that wherever she put her foot while walking flowers would bloom, and when they saw her all the birds in the trees would burst into joyful song. The god of the underworld, Pluto, king of Hades, the land of the dead, saw her one day and determined to make her his queen. Knowing that she would not go with him willingly, as he was dour of countenance, and the land that he ruled was populated only by weeping shades, he stole her one day as she was walking in the blossoming meadow, and took her away from the land of life and joyousness.
Demeter, her mother, who loved her more than any other thing, was frantic. She searched for her everywhere. She combed the slopes of Mt. Olympus and wandered the shores of the Adriatic, calling her daughter. She cursed the land that would not tell her where Persephone was, and all living plants browned and died. There was no harvest and the people starved, and yet still she searched and wept and called to Zeus, king of all, to tell her where her daughter had gone. So did the people sacrifice and pray to Zeus when Demeter would not answer with her green growing bounty. Zeus had commanded all living things not to tell Demeter where her daughter had gone. He was the brother of Pluto and did not wish to go against him. At long last, however, he could withstand the tears of the lonely mother and of the starving people no longer, and he told Demeter where her daughter was gone. "But, he said," if she has eaten anything while she has been with Pluto in Hades, she must stay there forever." Overcome with joy and hope, Demeter descended to the underworld, travelling with Charon across the river Styx, and passing Cerberus the 3-headed dog with but a look of disdain. She found Persephone, as she had been told, sitting as queen of Hades on the throne beside her ravisher, Pluto.
Persephone, too, had wept at her fate and had refused to smile or eat. But long and long had Demeter searched, and long and long had Zeus kept silence. Fasting had weakened her will, and at last one day when offered a pomegranate, she had eaten six seeds. Deep was Demeter's despair! "Keep Persephone here," she said, "and no fruit nor grain will grow upon the earth. Where then will be those who sacrifice to you? Where will your worshippers be? You gods will receive no honor when all those who have worshipped are shades themselves, dead of starvation, weeping subjects of my daughter in the underworld." Zeus could not change his word, but since her food had been so little, he ordered Persephone to stay in Hades as wife of Pluto for one month in each year for every seed that she had eaten. And so it still is. Each spring, when her six months in Hades is over, Persephone returns to her mother, whose joy is shown in the fertility of the earth. When Persephone is with Demeter the flowers bloom, the grain and fruit ripen, the sun warms the earth, but when she returns to Hades all grows cold and dead as her mother weeps. But all who know the mysteries know that spring and festival will come again each year.
Once upon a time, long ago when the Ojibway roamed the forests hunting deer and rabbit and gathering berries when they were ripe, there would be times when game was scarce and they would have to move on. No matter how lovely the valley, how clear the water in the spring as it sang over the rocks, if there were no game the tribe moved on. When young men of the Ojibway reached the threshold of full adulthood, it was the custom for them to build small huts away from the rest of the tribe and fast until they received knowledge of the spirit that would guide them throughout their lives.
The time had come for Wunzh, a young man of good character, grateful for all that he received, and uncomplaining when times were hard, to build his hut. He did so, and on the first evening of his fast, a handsome young man dressed all in green and gold came to him and offered to wrestle with him. Wunzh was not at his greatest strength, but he agreed, and he won the match. The stranger shook his hand and left, promising to come again. He came night after night to wrestle with Wunzh, and though Wunzh was weak with fasting, refusing even the little food custom allowed him, he won each time. On the seventh night, the last night of his ordeal, the stranger came for the last time. "We will wrestle for the last time," he said, "and this time you will kill me. But if you do as I say, I will return to you, and it will be a great good for your people. When I am dead, bury me in a certain place where you will keep the ground watered and weeded. Do this for several months, and I will live again with you." They wrestled again, and this time Wunzh killed his visitor, but he did not mourn, for he trusted his word and did all as he had told him. Sure enough, after several months, he saw his friend again, tall and straight and graceful, for he was Maize. Now the Ojibway were no longer dependent only upon the movement of game, but could grow their maize and live in the place they chose.
Then there is the story that much of the western world still believes and celebrates. It is not a story of fertile fields and the coming of spring, but it is celebrated at the same time and has the same theme. It is a theme to which the human soul responds again and again with hope and longing. Death is not the end, life will be renewed. It is because of this story that spring break happens, and that all the pagan trappings of Easter, the eggs and bunnies and chicks and flowers come together on this particular day: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox.
Once upon a time, nearly 2000 years ago now, a man named Jesus of Nazareth, son of a carpenter in the land of Palestine, began preaching about the coming of the kingdom of god to the descendents of the Hebrews, the Jews, who still lived there and were enslaved, by the Romans. The Jews were hoping for a Messiah who would come to lead them in battle against the Romans and free them. It began to be rumored that this Jesus was he, the Messiah, the leader who was prophesied. He came to Jerusalem the Sunday before the Passover, the spring festival of the Jews, which is still celebrated today, and was greeted eagerly as their savior. They waved palm branches and placed them and their coats beneath the hoofs of his donkey, that it need not touch the common earth. He preached, however, of a kingdom that was not of this world, the priests of his own people began to hate him, and he was betrayed to the Romans by his own disciple, Judas, for thirty pieces of silver, as he walked in the Garden of Gethsemane after celebrating the Passover seder. He was tried and condemned to die by crucifixion, and on Friday morning he was nailed to the cross. There he died and was taken down and placed in a tomb belonging to one of his followers, Joseph of Arimathea. Two women who loved him went to the tomb on Sunday to weep and pray, but they saw that the stone had been rolled away and there was no body there. Jesus was not dead but living. Each year at Easter Christians celebrate again that resurrection.
Today we are no longer an agricultural society, tied to the rhythms of the seasons and the dangers of want. Our systems of supply are amazing. We can get strawberries in December, melons in February. Even disastrous weather here or there, though it may bankrupt some farmers will not empty our grocery shelves. Yet those stories still have power, as springtime has power, to move us in the same way they always did. Though we have learned to warm and feed ourselves in winter, though we can even leave it and come to Naples for the season; though science has taught us that there is no danger that spring will not return, we still respond to the fact of spring.
It is in part because winter is not only of the earth but of the spirit. In all our lives there are times of doubt and fear and despair. The dark nights of winter, the dark night of the soul, keep their connection even in these days when we are free of earth's demands. Springtime is the promise that winter does not last, that rebirth and resurrection are always possible. It is the continuing hope that after pain and loss are over, joy may yet return. The most evocative line in the Bible for me is found in the Psalms: "Weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning." Spring is the morning of the year, the promise that weeping will end, and love and joy will come again.
That is the lesson of spring. It is always the same lesson wherever you are. The earth is renewed, joy and plenty are reborn, but they are reborn only after suffering and want are endured. Spring comes after winter, Easter after Good Friday. It is a time of hope and joy, but it is not naive and shallow, thinking that gladness and plenty will last forever. It is a joy that has known want and pain and knows that they will come again, but knows also that again they will pass, and joy will return with the springtime.