Holding Hands and Climbing
An Easter Reflection
In Ukraine this week, there will be women writing on eggs in bomb shelters and basements and in their homes. Ukrainians will be writing on eggs in Poland and Germany, in Canada and elsewhere. Ukranian Americans will be writing eggs in New York and Texas and California and points between.
This is the Ancient tradition of Pysanky, thought to have originated in prehistoric Trypillian culture in the Carpathian Mountains, and practiced continually by Ukrainians and in the Ukrainian diaspora unto this day.
Pysanky are created through a wax and dye batik process with intricate designs and bright beautiful colors. Each symbol and shade is invested with deep meaning such that traditional eggs could be considered letters and blessings to those who receive them. Indeed, the word Pysanky comes from a Ukrainian root word meaning “to write.”
In the historic practice decades and centuries ago, the women of the household would spend every night of holy week praying and painting eggs after everyone was in bed. A large household would produce up to 60 intricately worked pysanky, made of the most perfectly shaped eggs from young hens and secret family recipes of bright dye. The eggs represented rebirth and the bright nourishment of the sun, and eventually the resurrection of Christ.
To give a pysanka is to give a gift of life, and after the eggs were painstakingly crafted, they would be distributed to the community in acts of connection, weaving the townspeople in a network of care.
Several would be given to the priest and several placed on family graves in the cemetery. Many would be given to children and godchildren and exchanged between unmarried young adults. Several would be saved to place in the coffins of loved ones who might die during the year. Several would be given to extended family and friends, and a few would be placed in animal troughs and bee hives to ensure good production.
Elders would receive pysanky with dark, rich colors, and children would received brightly colored pysanky with playful designs. A bowlful was kept in each home, not just a colorful display but protection against lightning and fire.
The traditions have evolved, but they have been kept alive across generations and are practiced still today.
To give a pysanka is a gift of life. The practice of pysanky is the work of connection — sharing the gift of life.
In Ukraine this week, there will be women writing on eggs in bomb shelters, and people writing on eggs in basements, and in their homes. They will know profoundly what their ancestors also knew: that life is as fragile as a hollowed out egg, and as strong and pliable as wax, and as beautiful as a dye of shining color.
They will know profoundly what their ancestors also knew: that there is great violence, terror, and the deathliness of empire at work in this world, and that it is only the power of hands reaching out to one another in love, making a chain of compassion and hope and resistance, that can overcome such deathliness.
An ancient myth has it that an evil serpent awaits in the Carpathian mountains to destroy this world, and that it is only held at bay by a chain, a chain that the people make with every Pysanka they create.
By this myth, it is the beauty and connections created in community that can keep evil from overrunning this world.
I imagine humanity, joined together in resistance, facing down that serpent, hand in hand in hand in hand… standing in fear and trembling and joy and love to protect all that is beautiful and sacred on our earth and in our lives.
I imagine us strengthening the chain that works against hatred and Empire and deathliness.
And I imagine us doing it by investing in what is fragile, and pliable, and bright. By holding hands. By painting eggs.
The poet Daniel Ladinsky, writing in the style of the Persian poet Hafiz has said:
Of a great need
We are all holding hands
Not loving is a letting go.
The terrain around here
Ukrainians will be painting eggs this week in dangerous terrain, and we will be holding them in heart and sending aid and reaching out every way we can think as we have been doing. We will be making a chain.
And it will not hold evil entirely at bay. It will not prevent suffering and pain and so much death. And isn’t that the thing about resurrection?
The work of love and redemption is never done. It is never complete. It is always under threat.
But isn’t that the thing about humans at our best? At our best. We keep holding hands and climbing. We refuse to let go.
This, to me, is the central lesson of the story of Easter — the sheer stubborn survival of love in the face of death, life in the face of Empire, and community in the face of shattering grief.
Pysanky will be painted this coming week, because the Eastern Orthodox Easter, which many Ukrainians celebrate, won’t occur until next Sunday — as the Eastern church follows a different calendar than Western Christians.
Recently, I read an article from the Christian Century magazine about another significant difference in theological approaches to Easter in the Eastern and Western Church, as observed from their iconography.
As pre-eminent Christian historian John Dominic Crossan reminds us in the article, the biblical story of Easter does not give us a description of the resurrection. In all the Biblical tellings Jesus is crucified, and then he is either gone from the tomb or returned. What happens in between has been the source of profound theological imaginings over millennia, as well as significant fodder for Christian artists ancient and modern.
In most of Western Christian Iconography, Crossan tells us, Jesus’ return is pictured as a solitary act. Most often he is depicted descending in a blaze of glory from heaven, like a divine superhero come to save us all.
In the iconography of the Eastern Church, in contrast, Jesus is most often pictured ascending from hell where his defeat of death was imagined as quite literal. Here he is pictured stomping on a demon and holding his hand out to Adam, to Eve, to the Prophets, to David and Solomon, to bring them out of hell with him. They rise together, a collective resurrection that leaves none behind.
Indeed the Eastern church has a livelier tradition around what is called the harrowing of hell, in which Jesus is imagined to have used the time between his crucifixion and resurrection to descend into hell — a righteous demon slayer — fighting the forces of evil, and bringing the holy dead back up with him, all of them. None left behind. They emerge together from death into life and show us what is possible of the human heart.
In the last week, my family has been walking in the valley of the shadow of death, after my 35 year old brother Robby went — in the space of 48 hours — from thinking he had a sinus infection, to learning he had a brain stem bleed, to being diagnosed with stage four melanoma that had spread to his brain.
I will tell you now that we have cause for hope in innovative immunotherapy treatments and Robby is feeling good and resolved in the face of that treatment.
Still, this week my family descended together into a hell that I know many of you have traveled yourself and with your loved ones.
And let me tell you, let me testify, that Love refused to leave us there alone.
At our most fragile moments we found untold beauty. In the depth of our terror and heartbreak, we found we were surrounded by hands, reaching out and joined together, a great protective human chain, ready to lift us up from that pit of despair if they possibly could.
And of course they couldn’t entirely. Pain and fear are real. So they met us there — with meals and emails, Facebook comments and flowers — they met us there, and they did not leave us there alone. Love is just as real.
We know humans cannot take away one another’s pain — we cannot save each other. But my God the way we hold each other. The way we rise to meet that pain so that it is not the end of the story. The way we stand or sit and hold hands and laugh and play games and look into the void together and together take away its sting.
The true truth of death and suffering is always there in this life. And the equally true truth of life and love are always, always, always rising to meet it. We are always rising to meet it, in love and solidarity, and connection.
We tell this story every year — of life defeating Empire, love defeating death, and hope rising inexorably despite all odds. But this year there is a new shade to the story for me: its collectivity and the communal nature of resurrection. I am convicted this year by the Eastern Church’s telling, that Jesus doesn’t come down alone to super-hero save us, but that he descends to hell, he stays, and collects all the ancestors who ensure that no one is left behind. And that we, knowing him to be one symbol of the best of who humanity can be, we do the same.
We join each other in the Shadow of the Valley of Death, so that none need walk there alone. We go down into the hells of this world bringing life.
We embody to one another the love that cannot fix anything, but that saves everything.
We do this amid the tragedies of life — the truths of suffering and mortality that none can avoid. And, at our best, we also do this amid deathly structures in our world — the killing logic of Empire that need not be so, but so often is.
I’ve seen resurrection all winter long in the coldest nights of solidarity and warmth with our homeless neighbors and their mobile soup kitchen allies, showing up for one another to advocate for better support from the city, and showing up with hot food, and blankets, and tents, and a new mobile first aid unit.
In the face of Empire’s small hells, we cannot fix things for one another whole cloth… often our attempts to fix make things worse. But we can love each other where Empire would seek to part us. We can show up and fight demons together, and refuse to leave one another behind. And suddenly, simply through loving each other, things can shift. Nothing is fixed, but resurrection is there.
Everywhere we join hands in a chain of resistance to oppression, resurrection is there, helping us love one another beyond every barrier and lie of Empire. Everywhere we refuse to amplify or avoid the logic of suffering and instead come alongside one another in connection and hope, we are embodying together the love that fixes nothing and saves everything, and that is resurrection.
This week the people of Ukraine are still fleeing their homes. They are still being murdered in the street.
And they are making pysanky in exile. And their supporters in New York and Texas and across the world are making pysanky in solidarity and support.
Life is fragile and pain is real and Empire is deadly, and we make art and love and connection all the same, and that is resurrection.
There are abundant places of crucifixion and hell in this world, unfolding right now, in every corner.
And something else is happening too.
People are joining hands and climbing. Out of a great need, people are refusing to let go or leave behind.
People are making beauty in suffering, taking the great, fragile, terribly breakable shells of our lives and covering them in intricate design and riotous color.
And then, we are giving them away. We are sharing our days, the gift of life for and with one another. Making a great chain of humanity that rises and rises, and even Empire, and even pain, and even death cannot overcome it.