Saturday, April 03, 2010

Happy Easter

We have seen that the conception of the dying and risen God was no new one in these regions. All over Western Asia from time immemorial the mournful death and happy resurrection of a divine being appear to have been annually celebrated with alternate rites of bitter lamentation and exultant joy; and through the veil which mystic fancy has woven round this tragic figure we can still detect the features of those great yearly changes in earth and sky which, under all distinctions of race and religion, must always touch the natural human heart with alternate emotions of gladness and regret, because they exhibit on the vastest scale open to our observation the mysterious struggle between life and death.

But man has not always been willing to watch passively this momentous conflict; he has felt that he has too great a stake in its issue to stand by with folded hands while it is being fought out; he has taken sides against the forces of death and decay -- has flung into the trembling scale all the weight of his puny person, and has exulted in his fancied strength when the great balance has inclined towards the side of life, little knowing that for all his strenuous efforts he can as little stir that balance by a hair's-breadth as can the primrose on a mossy bank in spring or the dead leaf blown by the chilly breath of autumn.

Nowhere do these efforts, vain and pitiful and pathetic, appear to have been made more persistently and systematically than in Western Asia. In name they varied from place to place, but in substance they were all alike. A man, whom the fond imagination of his worshipers invested with the attributes of a God, gave his life for the life of the world; after infusing from his own body a fresh current of vital energy into the stagnant veins of nature, he was cut off from the living before his failing strength should initiate a universal decay, and his place was taken by another who played, like his predecessors, the ever-recurring drama of the divine resurrection and death. * * *

A chain of causes which, because we cannot follow them, might in the loose language of daily life be called an accident, determined that the part of the dying god in this annual play should be thrust upon Jesus of Nazareth, whom the enemies he had made in high places by his outspoken strictures were resolved to put out of the way. They succeeded in ridding themselves of the popular and troublesome preacher; but the very step by which they fancied they had simultaneously stamped out his revolutionary doctrines contributed more than anything else they could have done to scatter them broadcast not only over Judaea but over Asia; for it impressed upon what had hitherto been mainly an ethical mission the character of a divine revelation culminating in the passion and death of the incarnate Son of a heavenly Father. In this form the story of the life and death of Jesus exerted an influence which it could never have had if the great teacher had died, as is commonly supposed, the death of a vulgar malefactor. It shed round the cross on Calvary a halo of divinity which multitudes saw and worshiped afar off; the blow struck in Golgotha set a thousand expectant strings vibrating wherever men had heard the old, old story of the dying and risen god.
--Frazer, "The Crucifixion of Christ," The Golden Bough (Oxford abridgement 1994), pp. 675-76 (paragraphing altered).

... I note that the hymn echoed in the last sentence quoted, did indeed precede The Golden Bough by some 20 years, and we may infer that Frazer had it in mind.

... May we credit some ironical typesetter for commencing this chapter on page 666 of the Oxford World's Classics edition?

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