All around me this week, people are attending religious ceremonies.
Passover began on Monday night, and Jewish households gathered around a festive table to ceremonially tell the story of the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt.
Western Christians similarly are retelling the story of Jesus’ last week, beginning with his entry into Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. The events of the last week of Jesus’ life are told ritually in worship services that reenact his last meal, his washing his disciples’ feet, his arrest and trial, his execution and reappearance.
Myths, in all cultures, find their living expression in liturgical drama. They are told and acted out by participants. Processions, costumes, songs, symbolic foods and meals, the burning of fires, being plunged into darkness—the stories of the gods and goddesses and spirits and ancestors come alive in real experiences in the here and now.
Mythology isn’t something that happened, an historical occurrence from many years ago, it is something that happens. It takes place in the present-tense of symbolic life, the life of the psyche.
Myth is something that occurs to participants in the liturgical drama. It is happening to us. We are slaves in Egypt, and we witness the saving hand of God at work in the world. We walk along the dry bottom of the sea, and are redeemed to a life of freedom. We shout Hosanna! and wave palm branches in the air to herald the arrival of a donkey-riding king. We sit at the Passover table with him, break bread and pass the cup, have our feet washed, sing lamentations at the foot of the cross.
The mythic is not historic. It’s not even always theological. It’s theatrical.
It’s always a mistake to read myth as history or science. Though it seems to be telling the story of, for example, how the universe came into being, or how human life began, this is neither history or science. It’s drama. It’s the theological poetry into which listeners (literally, an “audience”) are meant to enter as participants.
And so I am feeling a little bereft this week. My Unitarian Universalist congregation has nothing going on this week. We will acknowledge a liberal, vaguely Christian, vaguely Pagan, form of Easter on Sunday, but that’s it.
As a religion, we don’t have myth. This is meant to be liberating and modern, but it is feeling a little soulless and disenchanting to me this week.
Many of us like to hear mythologies and ponder their meanings, but in our common worship life we never enter the darkened theatre of sacred story as actors, participants. Most keep a critical distance, sometimes pooh-poohing “superstition,” sometimes romanticizing other people’s religious practices.
This experiment in religion divorced from sacred story is relatively new, even for us. Two generations ago, Unitarians and Universalists had biblical mythology as their foundational sacred story. Some still do.
And even then, our historic traditions were low on the drama scale, at most reenacting Jesus’ table fellowship with an occasional communion service. Our worship has always focused on the word, spoken and written.
UUs have lots of sacred stories (usually our own, usually individual first person stories) but no sacred story that is ritualized in worship.
UUs have rites of passage, ways of marking individual journeys through time and life’s transformations.
Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have rituals, ceremonies that usually enact or affirm our own sense of our own selves, our own community. A ceremony in which participants pour their personal portion of water into a common font to symbolize our coming together in community, for example, or a ceremony of shared flowers to symbolize the gifts we offer and share in community. Sometimes there are stories attached to these symbolic gestures—Norbert Capek and his first flower ceremony in Prague in 1923, for example.
We have the symbol of a flame within the common cup. We have heroes and heroines of our history, and retell their legends. Somebody has apparently even invented a seven-day UU holiday in December—focused on principles—principles we ourselves establish as an association—not on a story.
All this, we have. But a mythology we do not.
I suppose this is a trade-off in having a religion that is entirely self-derived. What rites and symbols we do have point to the ultimate source of the religion—our selves.
What story could we enact together liturgically? If we were to create ritual around some universal story, some collectively meaningful story, what would it be? The great Flaring Forth at the beginning of the universe? The pageantry of the emergence of life on this planet? In other words, the story that science tells?