In the beginning

Column: Faith frees us from life cycle of nature

by Father Mike Stubbs

Since we observe All Souls Day this Sunday, any Gospel reading from the Mass of the Dead may be used.

I have chosen Jn 12:23-28, because I believe that it reflects the change of seasons.

It was an imposing scene. The priest held up a stalk of wheat. It glistened golden yellow in the beam of sunlight flashing through a hole in the ceiling.

The sight contrasted sharply with the darkness surrounding the crowd of onlookers. They were initiates into the mysteries of Eleusis. As they gazed on the wheat, they recalled the myth of Demeter, the goddess who personified the vegetative life force, and her daughter Persephone.

According to the story, Hades, king of the underworld, had carried Persephone off to be his wife. Mourning the loss of her daughter, Demeter caused the vegetation to shrivel up and turn dormant. No grain grew, and the people had no food.

But Zeus, the king of the gods, intervened and implemented a compromise between Hades and Demeter. For one third of the year, Persephone would stay with Hades and winter would prevail over the earth. The remaining two thirds of the year, Persephone would return to her mother and the earth would enjoy the seasons of spring, summer and fall.

The earth would come to life again and bear fruit.

Those initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis believed that they also would share in this cycle of death and resurrection. They looked forward to life after death promised by the myth. During the first part of the 20th century, some biblical scholars noticed a resemblance between the Christian belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection and the Greek mystery cults, such as that of Eleusis, which were popular when Christianity was just beginning in the eastern Mediterranean.

Those scholars, part of the history-of-religions school, argued that the Greek mysteries influenced the development of Christianity, with its belief in a dying god who rose to new life and similarly promised the believer life after death. According to those scholars, Christianity was basically a new Greek mystery cult.

That theory is now largely discredited. Scholars point out that Christianity is based upon a historical event, the death of Jesus. It focuses upon an actual person whose existence is not disputed, even if some doubt his divinity. The disciples were receptive to the idea of Jesus’ rising from the dead because of their Jewish belief in the resurrection.

On the other hand, the mystery cults were all based upon historical myths set in a timeless past. The characters who played the principal roles in those narratives were personified forces of nature, not real persons. The idea of resurrection arose from observing the life cycle of nature.

Sunday’s Gospel reading can shed some light upon this discussion. Some Greeks have approached Jesus to speak with him. Since they had come to Jerusalem to worship at the feast, they most likely were converts to Judaism from paganism. Even if they had not been initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis, they would have known something about it. In light of that, Jesus’ words resonate in a particular way: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

Jesus uses the metaphor of the grain of wheat to explain what his death will bring. Through his death on the cross, many will find eternal life. In contrast, the mysteries of Eleusis looked upon the wheat as representing the vegetative life force. Death and resurrection formed part of the cycle of nature, for human beings as well as for vegetation.

But for Christians, resurrection will come from the Lord of nature. It is a gift from God, through Jesus Christ. It depends upon our faith in him.

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

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