16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Recapturing the Myth
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 04/16/2006
We are told that the story of Jesus in the New Testament is the gospel- meaning it’s the good news. And that it is. A story of a miraculous man, born in an unusual way to a wonderful woman, who teaches love and integrity, and is the son of a god. He dies and is re-born, offering hope to all people that there is hope even in death, that there is resurrection for us all.
What we are not often told is that this story is repeated throughout the ancient myths of pagan religions especially in ancient Egypt. Many elements of the story of Jesus Christ are well known elements in stories of other god-like men, who came to earth to incarnate the god-spirit into flesh. Stories of Osiris, Horus, Krishna, Orpheus, Hermes, Adonis, Mithras, Thor, and many more like these describe an avatar or savior that sounds much like what we know about Jesus.
Scholars Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy have proposed in their book The Jesus Mysteries, that Christianity and the Mystery Religions practiced in Egypt and the Middle eastern region in time periods preceding Christianity share a remarkable similarity of beliefs, rituals, story elements, and doctrine to Christianity. They give an example of the Osiris/Dionysus myth in which a Christ like hero is a god made into flesh, born to a virgin on December 25th with a fated star appearing in the East, performs miracles such as turning water into wine and healing the sick, goes through a transformation in front of his disciples, has someone betray him for thirty pieces of silver, sits down to a celebratory meal with bread and wine, is killed, and on the third day is resurrected. He later ascends to heaven and sits beside God as his assistant. Here we have the entire Christ story as told hundreds of years before Jesus the Christ was born in a myth designed to illustrate one major point- that humans are incarnate with a divine soul. These are the similarities pointed to by some scholars. However, there are other scholars who feel this scholarship is faulty.
But whether the details are correct or not, is not what is important to us. What is important is the rich, spiritual depth found in many of these pagan myths that can also be found in Christianity. In Egyptian religions, the arrival of a “son of God” making the divine incarnate was a central motif reoccurring in most time periods. Even twenty thousand years ago, there was a god-like king called “Iu-em-hetep” a god’s son come to earth as a Savior of humankind. In Egyptian ritual, he came every day in the form of the sun, and as the constant renewal of the seasons. Each natural element of the earth that came to give life to people was evidence of this divine love being given as a gift in a real, physical way. These events were cyclic like nature, continually re-enlivening the spirit of humankind. It was the Eygptian’s faith in the continual renewal of life that created repeated stories of figures coming to earth to bring it new life.
The symbol of the cross was an ancient Egyptian symbol found decorating many of the mummy’s bodies. It’s horizontal and vertical axes represented the life we live on this earth as intersected by the life we continue to lead in the afterlife. The ankh, or cross with a loop at the top you will recognize as the Egyptian symbol of eternal life. Some also see the cross as the symbol of our animal life, crossed by the consciousness that we have become aware of that leads us to our spiritual life. The cross then shows the intersection of our physical existence with our spiritual existence. Tom Harpur suggests that the “heart of Christianity really flows from the deep well of the unconscious, having been planted there by God”. He celebrates the deeper symbol of the cross as the Egyptians used it to show God reaching down into our lives.
Many cultures perpetuated stories of divine humans as allegorical reminders of the divinity inherent within life. But the intention of these stories was not to see the god-like figures as real historical figures. In fact, Tom Harpur in his book, The Pagan Christ, posits that early Christians did not see the elements of the story of Christ as necessarily historical, but rather symbolically. He says that Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century German mystic once wrote that Christ was not a historical person , but rather, “the collective soul of humanity”. (Harpur, Tom, The Pagan Christ, p. 41)
While the teachings of many early Christians such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen, were primarily focused on the allegorical and symbolic nature of the Christ stories, it was in the third century when Christianity became Romanized that the Christian story became historicized and simplified into a literal tale that the masses could understand.
Pagan worship, often seen as worshipping the sun and other natural elements, overlapped with Christian worship in the reign of Constantine, in the fourth century. Constantine saw the political expediency in merging the new popular Christian religion with the old pagan ways creating a hybrid religion. You can see this is the Roman crosses with sun rays emanating from the center. In Christian prayer, the phrase, “Our Lord, the Sun” was often repeated until it was eventually changed to “Our Lord, Our God”. (Harpur, Tom, The Pagan Christ, p. 43)
Romans were good at taking cultural icons and creating mass acceptance of these icons for use of societal control. (Harpur, p. 49) Later in the fourth century, there were a series of book burnings and revisionist teachings aimed at burying deep the obvious theological connections between ancient Pagan teachings and what was considered the new Christian religion.
Examining the important dates celebrated in the Christian calendar, Christmas and Easter, we can readily see the origins of these holidays in the Pagan cyclical celebrations. Some say that the date December 25, which is also the date of the mythical Mithras’ birth, was chosen because of the date of the solstice plus three days denoting the resurrection. The date of Easter, still calculated by the solar and lunar calendars, shows the inevitable connection between Jesus’ death and resurrection and what has always been the natural celebration within each human when spring brings us back to our own re-birth after a dormant winter.
Easter, with it’s Pagan eggs and rabbits, allows many of us to celebrate the birthing we are feeling in our own souls when the life around us rebounds from the death of winter. The symbolic resurrection of Jesus, found echoed in most of the mythological god stories, represents a primal need that humans have for conquering death. Winter represents the death of live things; spring brings back that hope and feeling of aliveness that we each feel as we watch the leaves and blossoms burst forth from their tombs.
Is it no wonder that these stories of re-birth abound in human mythology? Haven’t we all had times in our lives when we were dead, a time when everything alive in us died and we felt that the energy and hope of really living again was gone? And then something woke us up, something seemed to reach into our lives and bring us new life?
I watched a friend of mine go through such a time. My friend, whom we’ll call Judy, gave me permission to tell her story. My friend’s husband informed her one spring day that he had decided their marriage was over and he was leaving that day to move into an apartment that he had already rented. This was clear out of the blue for her. She had had no idea that he felt this way. Judy found herself completely at sea to understand how this could have happened to her.
I would sit with her often listening to her tears and anger as she sorted through the pieces of disconnection that made up her life now. I started noticing that she was starting to say less and call less often. She was a writer and she was having difficulty with her writing. She seemed to wander around with a dazed expression on her face. After seeing her this way, I asked her whether she was seeking counseling for her grief. She assured me that she was. But I could see that she was falling deeper and deeper into depression. Several months passed when I could see her getting less and less in touch with her life. She was walking through her life as if she wasn’t present.
I was busy traveling and taking care of my own life and didn’t hear from Judy for a couple of months and when I did call her and dropped by to see her I was amazed by the difference in her. She was wearing a bright new dress, she had her hair done in a different way, and she was smiling. I couldn’t believe it. As I hugged her, I could just feel that her body had woken from it’s long sleep. I looked at her and I could only feel one thing coming from her - joy at who she was. I asked her what had happened.
She said something about figuring out that she wasn’t ready to die, yet. She told me that she had wrapped her identity so closely with her marriage that when it was over, she felt she didn’t exist any more. Once she moved through her sadness and her anger, one day she realized that she had defined who she was through her husband and her kids. And she had nothing she could call her own. She had started volunteering - teaching writing and computers to women at a homeless shelter. And she had gotten to know one of these women whose name was Chris. Judy could see that while Chris was homeless- she still knew who she was. My friend had talked more with her to see what it was that helped Chris know who she was. Having overcome many experiences of being abused, the story of this woman’s life would bring anyone to tears. Coming to the shelter, finding a church that cared for her and friends who really loved her had changed this woman’s feeling about herself. She had begun to see the worth inside herself that she had never seen before. Connecting with her own worth and a feeling that God loved her despite anything gave Chris a resurrection of sorts. While Chris shared this story with Judy, she didn’t try to press Christianity. She just offered Judy a gift of her love for her own life.
The message to Judy made her begin examining how she was living her own life. And she realized that she wasn’t living her life. She was just walking through it. Trying to get through the day. Judy decided that she would need to take each day as an opportunity to live a new life. She just decided that she was not going to waste any more time being lifeless. She was going to start living. In fact, she felt re-born. And I could see in her eyes that she was re-born.
This is what the Easter story is about. It is what all the resurrection Christ myths from the ancient religions are about. The spirit of life that is dormant inside us, waking us up from some kind of death. Getting “born again” without the Christian implications. Life offers us the opportunity to begin again in so many ways.
Sometimes we find new life within us by healing a relationship that’s been broken, or finding ourselves climb out of our grief. We may discover within our new life a new friend, a new job, an newly meaningful spiritual experience. But everyday we are offered gifts of re-birth.
Sometimes the beginning again is painful because it means we have moved away from a part of our life we realize is lifeless. Sometimes the beginning is joyful, like falling in love.
Tom Harpur offers us another idea about the ancient religions. While they were based around nature and the cycles of nature, he says, they weren’t just celebrating nature and praying that the corn would grow. They saw in the miracle of the corn growing, the seed of divine love. And that taught them that that seed of divine love was inherent in themselves.
You may have heard the story about the Head Monk of a monastery who was dismayed at the behavior that he observed between his fellow monks. So, he called them together and announced that he had had a vision that Christ was going to be appearing to them soon. They wouldn’t know what day he would come, but to prepare because he was coming. Immediately, the Head Monk began to see a change in the monks’ behavior. They started talking to each other with respect and helping each other out. But then when no holy visitation happened the monks asked him at dinner one night when Christ would appear. He smiled and said, “He already has. He appears in each of you every day.”
The embedded symbol of the god-man allegories all point to one thing- that God, or divinity, or miraculous life becomes flesh in each of us. That we are the Christ. Every one of us.