Spring as a Metaphor in Calendars of Faith

March 26, 2018 :: Suzanne Bott and Michael J. Crosbie

As the Earth’s southern hemisphere hastens its advance into Fall, with days becoming shorter and cooler, in the northern hemisphere we emerge from the deep freeze of Winter into the thaw of Spring, the season associated with rebirth. It is no coincidence that this is also the point that Christians emerge from the Lenten season into the warmth of Easter; Jews remember the exodus from the death-grip of Egypt, moving over a threshold similar to that of Winter into Spring. Nature provides numerous metaphors in various faith communities for the passage from one season into another.

For instance, Passiflora, the “Passion” or Pasque Flower, takes its name from the French time of Easter, or “Pâques.” The word is similar to the Hebrew, “Pesach,” which means Passover, and is a clear reflection in the Abrahamic tradition of the connection between Easter, the resurrection of Christ and redemption from sin, and Passover, the freedom of the Jews from persecution by the Egyptians. That they would be celebrated in this season, with other observations of new life and resurrection, is not surprising.

Some faith traditions and cultures celebrate with parties for Nowruz and Navroz, marking the new year in parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, with wishes of peace and forgiveness. India and Nepal celebrate Holi, the Spring festival of colors, offering hopes for rebirth, growth, and renewal. The bright colors and frivolity offer a gracious opportunity to forget old wounds and extend lightness for positive new beginnings. In Japan, Hanami or Umemi festivals celebrate Spring with viewing the extraordinary beauty of cherry and plum blossoms that symbolize friendship and peace. They are like confetti as they float in the air and the tradition has spread to other countries where symbolic cherry and plum trees have been planted.

Other cultures express the joy of new life with festivals surrounding nature’s beauty and bounty, much as did ancient cultures, with feasts for the senses. Tender fruits and vegetables appear after months of dried or salted provisions. Bird eggs are decorated, dyed, and hidden to observe fertility; celebratory meals are cooked and shared at this time of year. Even the encasement of the shell intimates metaphorical potentials in this time of year, as seen in the symbol of the mollusk shell. In Louis Charbonneaux-Lassay’s book on religious symbolism, The Bestiary of Christ, he writes that shells symbolize the human in total, body and soul. Within the shell the soul resides, and as such they are metaphors for the resurrection of Christ. Charbonneaux-Lassay notes: “At the gloomy time of year, when Winter’s death holds earth in its grip, the small snail plunges deep into the ground, shuts itself up inside its shell, as though in a coffin, by means of a strong, limestone epiphragm, until Spring comes and sings Easter Hallelujahs over its grave…. Then it tears down its wall and reappears in broad daylight, full of life.”

While religious rituals and services are performed and held at the height of the holy season, the symbolism extends beyond the services. The experience is universal to all living things, and the ceremonies, dances, and rituals are exceptional in their transcendence across both centuries and cultures. It is this transcendence that shows the way beyond dogma or formalities that divide spiritual traditions. Instead, this time of year sheds light on the most fundamental elements of life – the gifts of sunlight, water, earth, and energy, that by their very existence connote life, harmony, strength, and divine love.

In Spring, there is no need for monumental architecture of stone, glass, and iconography, for the grace of nature offers every aspect of divinity unsurpassed by works of mere mortals. The “common” experience of the season adds to the very sacredness of the religious rites of Spring – the Passion Flower blooms for every person on earth. The season provides all that is needed to deeply feel and have faith in the presence of a benevolent higher power, a divine Holy Spirit, a loving God.

Suzanne Bott is a research associate at the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona; Michael J. Crosbie is editor of Faith & Form and teaches at the University of Hartford.