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April 22, 2000

Is Today a Holiday?

Today is Earth Day, and also Holy Saturday.

I sympathize with the idea of Earth Day, but my practice has led me towards what I see as more Traditional modes of planetary appreciation. On Saint Patrick's Day, I outlined my notion of the Spring Holidays, and I intend to continue working through that system (actually, it's a poem, not a system; so much the better.) Earth Day seems to contain a political motivation, and seeks to update the Tradition with respect to contemporary concerns. I would like to think that I am participating in that effort, but I have no wish to descend into the sort of squabbling found here.

Tradition provides linkage; a timeless thread that guides us through Time's labyrinth. It's about continuity and connection; not putting new names on what we already have. Everything required to honor this occasion is close at hand. In fact, the tools are so familiar as to be easily overlooked. If adopting novel ways helps to convince some people that they are actually doing something, then they have my blessing. For my part, the established Holidays are the tools. Celebration and observance amount to the same thing: looking deeply into the meaning of the occasion, its original impulse, and all that has accrued to it through time. Meditation as celebration. When the Holiday disarms the ego, then you are in the Tradition.

To this end, I think that Holy Saturday is of the greatest interest here. It's often the forgotten day between Good Friday and Easter, but it's most relevant to contemporary consciousness. Agnosticism (a word coined by T. H. Huxley, "Darwin's Bulldog", and grandfather of Aldous) defines the modern relationship to God: we just don't know. Atheism demands more certainty than is available to most of us, even as doctrinal religions do. Belief of any kind is suspect. Our lives are spent much as the followers of Jesus spent that Saturday; we wonder, and we wait. They knew only that the object of their cause was dead, and they had not the means to believe that he could live again. In such a pass are we. A certain kind of reason mitigates against belief, and even faith must at some point be fulfilled, as on that Easter Sunday. Those who have not glimpsed the Resurrection are waiting still. And we can ill afford to wait.

This is where Tradition can assist us. Tradition encodes knowledge, not scientific knowledge, but true Gnosis; the opposite of our uncertainty. Tradition tells us what even the gospels do not; the tale of Jesus' doings on this day: the Harrowing of Hell.

Jesus' descent to the Underworld is not described in the biblical narrative, but it is found in early apocrypha, and was embraced by the Church. Some will say that this was just a way of reconciling the new faith with its Jewish origins. Jesus redeems the worthy denizens of the Underworld, (which up until then was not a true Hell,) and allows them into Heaven, thus appropriating, without fully accepting, the history of the Hebrews. Henceforward, all access must be through Him.

There is something to this view, but the accommodation goes much deeper. In fact, the Underworld journey is a widespread type of the initiatory experience common to virtually all Traditional cultures. It is the very soul of Shamanism, that practical spirituality upon which all others have been built (even if the edifice obscures the foundation). The pagan converts who displaced Jews as the main constituency of Christianity certainly recognized the pattern. They probably demanded it. Their heritage was in the cosmopolitan mystery cults of the Mediterranean world, which were essentially a sophisticated elaboration of time-honored Shamanic practice. The mysteries typically put the initiate through a ritual reenactment of the patron deity's mythos. The most famous were the Eleusinian Mysteries, devoted to the Underworld sojourn and return of Persephone, the daughter of the Earth. These rites are now thought to have employed a psychoactive brew, a fact which emphasizes their connection to "primitive" ceremonies, which routinely employ hallucinogenic plants in this context. Jesus might be accepted as the new god, but he had to fulfill the old expectations. Christianity could not survive, except by engaging the deeper Tradition.

Rebirth remains the best metaphor we have for spiritual awakening. It is not won without a price. Death must separate the old life from the new, suspended in between, as is this Saturday. That the deity should suffer the same death marks a watershed in our spiritual evolution; a closer identification between the human and the divine. If God is more like us, then our own divinity becomes the more apparent. Jesus does not suffer for us, but as us. When we know this, we will know Him. And knowing Him will separate us from our Selves. The perspective thereby afforded will not diffuse the Mystery, but does teach us the proper stance to take in Mystery's presence. That stance will be required of us on the morrow.

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