Myth, Time, Feast, & Eucharist

Demeter’s hair was yellow as the ripe corn of which she was mistress, for she was the Harvest Spirit, goddess of farmed fields and growing grain. The threshing floor was her sacred space. Women, the world’s first farmers (while men still ran off to the bloody howling of hunt and battle), were her natural worshippers, praying: ‘May it be our part to separate wheat from chaff in a rush of wind, digging the great winnowing fan through Demeter’s heaped-up mounds of corn while she stands among us, smiling, her brown arms heavy with sheaves, her ample breasts adorned in flowers of the field.’ Demeter had but one daughter, and she needed no other, for Persephone was the Spirit of Spring. The Lord of Shadows and Death, Hades himself, the Unseen One, carried her off in his jet-black chariot, driven by coal-black steeds, through a crevice in the surface of Earth, down to the realms of the dead. For nine days, Demeter wondered sorrowing over land, sea, and sky in search of her daughter, but no one dared tell her what had happened till she reached the Sun, who had seen it all. With Zeus’ help, the mother retrieved her daughter, but Persephone had already eaten a pomegranate seed, food of the dead, at Hades’ insistence, which meant she must come back to him. In the end, a sort of truce was arranged. Persephone could return to her sorrowing mother but must spend a third of each year with her dark Lord. Thus, by the four-month death each year of the goddess in springtime in her descent to the underworld, did winter enter the world. And when she returns from the dark realms she always strikes earthly beings with awe and smells somewhat of the grave.” – Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, 3.

A few pages later in this same book, Cahill draws a connection between this Greek myth of Demeter and the “myth become fact” of the Gospel story, and how God’s people, the Church, have understood that story:

In Demeter’s story … the attentive reader may catch dark prefigurings of the Christian Mother of Sorrows and the novenas – penitential nine-day cycles – commemorating her pain at the loss of her magical Child, who rises from the grave in late March or early April.

Now, we could take this insight of Cahill’s and launch off from it in many different directions (for example, we could discuss the nature of “Christianity and culture” and why so many puritan-like or “evangelical” views of “synchretism” are wrong), but when I read this passage in Cahill this morning, I immediately thought of passage in Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World (pages 52 – 59) in which he discusses the Christian understanding of time, and how the Church has used feasting as a way to redeem created time (and creation with it).

This is particularly relevant in our postmodern, nihilistic world, a world which Schmemann calls “serious,” in contrast to the life of joyful feasting which the Gospel brings about for us who are in Christ.

“Through the Cross,” Schmemann quotes the liturgy, “joy came into the whole world.”

[The Jewish feasts of Passover and Pentecost] were – to use another image – the “material” of a sacrament of time to be performed by the Church. We know that both feasts originated as the annual celebration of spring and the first fruits of nature. In this respect they were the very expression of feast as man’s joy about life. They celebrated the world coming back to life again after the death of winter, becoming again the food and life of man. And it is very significant that this most “natural,” all-embracing and universal feast – that of life itself – became the starting point, and indeed the foundation of the long transformation of the idea and experience of feast. It is equally significant that in this transformation each new stage did not abolish and simply replace the previous one, but fulfilled it in an even deeper and greater meaning until the whole process was consummated in Christ himself. The mystery of natural time, the bondage to winter and release in spring, was fulfilled in the mystery of time as history – the bondage to Egypt and the release into the Promised Land. And the mystery of historical time was transformed into the mystery of eschatological time….” — Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 56

This entire transformation – of pagan feast to Jewish feast to Christian feast, of natural time to historical time to eschatological time – culminates, argues Schmemann, in Easter, when the Church says,

Enter ye all into the joy of your Lord,
You who are rich and you the poor, come to the feast,
Receive all the riches of loving-kindness …
And let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.

And again:

The Pascha of the Lord,
From death unto life,
And from earth unto heaven
Has Christ our God brought us….

Now are all things filled with light,
Heaven and earth and the places under the earth.
All Creation does celebrate the Resurrection of Christ the King

On whom it is founded….

We celebrate the death of Death,
The annihilation of Hell,
The beginning of a life new and everlasting.
And with ecstasy we sing praises to the author thereof….

This is the chosen and holy Day,
The one King and Lord of Sabbaths,
The Feast of Feasts and the Triumph of Triumphs….

O Christ, the Passover great and most holy!
O Wisdom, Word and Power of God!
Grant that we may more perfectly partake of Thee
In the day of Thy Kingdom which knoweth no night.

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Interesting, especially when considered through a lens of circular time…. the omniscience of God. Thanks for sharing.

Mary Celeste: Indeed. Thanks for your comment!

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