Orpheus- an Easter Sermon

Rev. Brian J. Kiely  Unitarian Church of Edmonton, April 20, 2014

It is the Spring when the earth comes back to life.  It is a time of year for rebirth and resurrection. A beautiful array of stories appear in many ancient traditions all over the world.  Each tell of the conquest of life over death.  Sometimes it is a hero conquering the bringer of death, other times it is a story of sacrifice of one so another can live again.  The themes and reasons for the resurrection cover a wealth of human longings.  Over the years I have looked at some of them in sermons including the resurrection of Jesus.

The purpose of many of the most ancient stories was to simply explain the cycle of the seasons as in the myth of Demeter venturing into the underworld to reclaim her stolen daughter Persephone who is allowed to return to the Earth only for the Spring and Summer each year.

Most of us have at least passing familiarity with the story of Jesus.  As in many other tales, there is an act of sacrifice, time in the underworld and then resurrection.

The difference is that Jesus sacrifices himself not for a single lover or a child, but to save all humankind.  This is an enormous escalation of the tradition of the stories. It is a common aspect of the Gospels which were written in part to prove the supremacy of the Jesus story over other deities. And when he emerges from the tomb, he is no longer fully human but equally and in full measure, God.  Indeed, he is more deeply transformed than we popularly assume.   I will come back to that in awhile, but to start I want to look for a different set of lessons in the story of Orpheus.

There are at least three accounts from the ancient world of this story, all varying slightly in detail and sometimes greatly in tone and interpretation.  One writer saw him as pure hero, another as completely self-absorbed, and the third as something in between.

The most faithful followers of particular religions are taught and expect their stories to have narrow and ‘correct’ interpretations.  Whenever a new book or film comes out that explores the story of Jesus in a manner outside of these prescribed norms, a hue and cry arises. Theatres are picketed by believers – few of whom have actually seen the film.  That’s not just true in Christianity.  Remember the international incident caused when a Danish newspaper published unflattering cartoons of the Prophet? There is a cultural baseball bat of orthodoxy wielded in order to say  there is but one true way of telling the story. Actually there are several competing bats, but that’s another sermon.  And many are the people who have been harmed by those orthodox bats of intolerance.

It is sad, for anyone who works with stories of any kind will tell you that they are designed to inspire interpretation.  They are created to trigger a reaction in the receiver. They are meant to be played with and reframed.  Stories are not for the recounting of facts, they are for the telling  truths -not the same thing at all.  Stories do teach, but they are best when they do not teach doctrine.  Rather they lead us to uncover wisdom by pondering the meaning of the tale for ourselves. Stories live and move us because there is a point in them that we discover and to which we can connect.

Storytellers may try to communicate a certain point of view now and then, but it’s up to us to decide if that’s valid or not.

So here we have Orpheus.  He is a prince, the son of a king, and of Calliope, one of the 9 Muses.  They are the women who inspire the various arts and sciences. Calliope inspired the poets.  Now she has a pedigree! Her father is no less than Zeus – the head God on Olympus, and her Mom was Mnemosyne one of the Titans who preceded even the Gods.

Given that ancestry, it’s no surprise that Orpheus was gifted with a fabulous voice and an ability for lyric poetry.  After all, Mom was the Muse for some of the greatest writers ever.  It was said that with his songs, Orpheus could make people fall in love, could tame beasts and even divert the course of rivers.  Oh, and his lyre?  That was a gift from Apollo the sun god who personally taught him to play and gave him an instrument that would never tarnish or go out of tune.

Orpheus had looks, charm, money, grace and talent…and he was literally – a demigod.  Who could compete with that?  Face it, Orpheus was an absolute rock star who usually got what he wanted.

And once he met her, what he wanted was Eurydice, daughter of the King of Thrace, a fabulous beauty with the purest singing voice.  If ever there was a match decreed by the Fates, this was it.

But the Fates are by definition, capricious. As we heard, all did not go well.  On her very wedding day she was bitten by a viper, the most evil symbol in Greek mythology.  Think Medusa. Think the Gorgons.  In fact until the Titans booted him out, Ophion the snake ruled the world.  Snakes had a grudge to settle – a common theme found in the myths of the Mediterranean.

Orpheus fasts and mourns as does the whole kingdom, but long beyond the normal time for grieving.  He covers his lyre and will not sing.  His world has come apart and he is lost.

This is something that happens to everyone, sometime.  Loss is part of life.  Sometimes getting through the loss can be a real struggle but in time, nearly everyone moves on.  Loss and grief stop us in our tracks for a time.  They’re supposed to do that.  Mourning hobbles us — but only for a while.  Most of us cannot live in a grieving state forever.  At some point we have to look forward and get on with living.

In Nightsong a modern retelling of Orpheus by Michael Cadmun the need to accept and move on is brought home by the faithful servant Biton:

“I will see Eurydice again,” said Orpheus simply.  Biton smiled ruefully.  He understood well that Eurydice had been a rare woman.  Nevertheless, Biton was not ashamed to point out – silently, to himself, – that sorrow had its dignity, and that mourning was both proper and necessary.  No other human travelled into the underworld after a lost bride.”

So why did Orpheus make that terrible journey?  Ovid thought he did it for love and that he was so smitten by temporary madness- that he looked back.  Virgil, by contrast, thought the Prince rather self-centred and egotistical and that his mission was doomed to fail condemned by his hubris.  Virgil’s Orpheus looked back to make sure he was not losing his possession and did not believe that Hades would dare to punish him for a quick glance.  Wrong.

Both are useful interpretations.  The beautiful thing about stories is that they continue to live if we don’t tie them down with orthodoxy.  It is okay to reinterpret them in terms of our own times.

I looked at some more modern analyses.  A Jungian looked at the story as a dream where all characters are facets of the same personality.  That’s a core piece of the Jungian tradition.  We are made up of light and shadow, conscious and unconscious, and we play those aspects off one another in our dreams and musings.  This is how we grow and how we heal by letting the story play out inside of us and then learning the lessons the subconscious has to teach.  The communication between these facets is about connection and mutual benefit and come in the service of health.  Illness, then, is a state when these aspects of our self are forced to remain separate.  But the connection must be balanced to be healthy.  In this story it is not.

Orpheus is the conscious ego in this analysis, headstrong and unwilling to make concessions to his subconscious shadow side – the ghost of Eurydice.  He demands an impossible kind of reunification: to have things back the way they were making no concessions in return, sacrificing nothing, paying no real price.  Remember this is the rock star who is not used to not getting what he wants.  He does not know failure.

The mind does not work that way, of course.  Unless his consciousness is willing to meet the unconscious and learn from it there can be no reunion, no restoration of emotional health.  And so Orpheus is broken psychically and Eurydice fades back into the underworld.

That version works for me.  The cycle of emotional healing only succeeds if, while retelling our stories of change, we learn from them and allow ourselves to be changed by them.  When we refuse, or for some physical or chemical reason cannot allow that circle of healing change to complete itself, well, we don’t get better.  In fact we break down.  That’s a bit like what PTSD is – a break in the healing circle.  At best we can only be partners in healing.  We do not get to control it by force of will.

Another interpretation that particularly struck me with its truth – which is to say the one that most satisfied whatever is in me that drew me to this tale, came from an unusual source – a simple online message board.

David H wrote

I wrote a fiction piece once in which the main character was told that Orpheus’ Sin was not that he looked back but that he stopped looking towards the future. 

I know this is not the general interpretation but when I get so bogged down with past events or day to day living that I can’t focus on the future I use this story to remind to keep looking forward.

As I say, I rather like that.  It fits with my personal philosophy that while we must learn from the past and even love the past, we cannot live in the past beyond a normal period of grieving and mourning.

And so, perhaps improbably, we come back to the story of Jesus.  I was rereading the Gospel accounts of the period after the resurrection this week.  As is often the case there is little agreement between the Gospels accounts – they are stories, after all.  But here is what most people don’t notice.

The accounts are very short – a brief chapter at the longest.  In all of the accounts, Jesus mystically appears and disappears.  In at least a couple, he is unrecognized by his followers until the moment when he breaks bread for them.  And Jesus never eats or drinks.  He offers some brief message – always pointing towards the future.  It’s time to move on, to be going out and baptizing and sharing the message with new people. When the disciples accept the message Jesus is free to leave forever.

There is nothing at all human about this risen Christ figure.  I suspect many Christians would find that assertion upsetting.  The price of his sacrifice has been his humanity. Though he makes occasional brief appearances among them for 40 days, Jesus is no longer part of the human world.  He is but a shadow, a memory.  He cannot stay for long, at least not among the emotionally healthy.

Some liberal theologians in the Jungian school have theorized that this Risen Christ represents the collective grief of the disciples – only Mary Magdalane is said to have met him alone.  In that mourning and grief they discover what Orpheus failed to find on his journey, they find the way forward.  And after 40 days they allow Jesus to ascend to heaven.

If I can draw a simple conclusion or two, resurrection stories are less about life returning to the deceased and far more about life returning to the mourners.  They are tales of transformation. They point to the promise that life for those left behind will go on.  There is a graceful good awaiting in each of our futures.  But we will need to  turn away from the past – not forget it, but turn away from reliving it.  We must let our losses fade back into the Underworld and let ourselves be healed.  Then will Spring come, only when we are looking forward.