English is unusual among European languages (and among most languages native to people who celebrate the holiday) in not deriving its name for today’s holiday from the Hebrew Pesach, for Passover. Instead it appears to derive from the name of a fertility goddess, Eostre – aptly enough, for a spring holiday (and thus the eggs and bunnies). The other language whose name for the holiday comes Eostre is German: perhaps the colder northern climate makes the return of spring that much more present in mind, or the power of its pagan divine embodiment more present in memory. Anyway: that goddess’s name itself comes from a word for the dawn.

The Christian tradition refers to Christ at the Last Supper as “our Passover lamb”: a sacrifice that is, however, ultimately a renewal, in the Eucharist, in which Christ offered bread, saying this was his body, and wine, saying this was his blood. The sacrament both marks the communion of the congregation and the grace of Christ’s forgiveness. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation would seem to work both ways: bread and wine become cosubstantial with Christ’s body and blood…but Christ’s body and blood, his sacrifice, become cosubstantial in their effect with bread and wine: the means of sustenance (of the soul rather than the body).

So the ideas of loss and transformation, of a sort of cosmic recycling, are common to the European and Hebrew strands of the Christian holiday and are, of course, present in the celebration of the holiday itself. At this point some readers are probably wondering if I’ve undergone some sort of conversion: no, but a few days ago, iTunes played Nico Muhly’s recent setting of the rather haunting old English ballad known most commonly as “The Twa Sisters,” which he has retitled “The Only Tune.” (The full version comprises three sections, the first two of which are far less successful to my ears than this third section, in which Sam Amidon’s vocals appear in their own guise rather than recontextualized in electronic quotation marks.) As I was thinking about this song (in which an older sister jealously murders her younger sister and tosses her corpse into a body of water, whence her bones are found and made into a musical instrument, which plays only one tune, a tune that tells the younger sister’s tale, incriminating the older sister), I first found myself thinking that the plot bears certain similarities to what would be my favorite piece of religious poetry, if the word “favorite” made sense to describe a group of one – which is the lyrics to His Name Is Alive’s curiously titled “Soul Resides in the Horse Barn“:

let the sea roar
make a loud noise
sing unto the lord
did he know
that we would
take the ink from the ground
write him letters and praise
take the trees and
slice them thin
write his name
all over him
all wet with rain
god is our witness
as god is our witness

It’s from here that I thought of the Easter story, and recognized the common metaphorical underpinnings of the three narratives.

If I had more space, and time, I’d focus on the curious way all three narratives dance around a question of the role of destruction: one recent online discussion (about Jesus Christ Superstar, if you must know) focused on the role of Judas, initially just within the rock opera, but expanding to his role in the Christian drama: if his role is essential, is his betrayal truly evil, or is it (as Judas in JCS seems to believe) a weird mirroring of Jesus’ own sacrifice, a means to a higher end? In “The Twa Sisters,” this is less present: there seems little notion of redemption for the older sister, and the presumed beauty arising from the music of the fiddle transfigured from the murdered sister’s bones also seems incidental to the less complex idea that truth will out. But then, it’s a curious fact that such a gruesome tale (and it’s hardly alone in this) should underlay such a haunting, beautiful tune. “Soul Resides” is also rather ambiguous: it’s legible as a hymn of praise, as a recognition of “his” all-pervading presence, in everything from the sea and rain to the trees and “ink” from the ground. (There are inks derived from animal, vegetable, and mineral sources.) But it might also be read ecologically, as a lamentation for the vandalism we wreak upon the earth, destroying trees, sapping blood from the earth, and scrawling graffiti all over everything, tagging the very earth with our name. The song asks whether “he” knows – it does not say whether he would approve. God may be our witness – but that rain might be destruction, and that mighty sea roar, accusation: what God is witnessing is left unsaid.

Not every act of destruction is also an act of creation.


1 Comment

Filed under langwich, noise, thinky

One response to “omelets?

  1. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has a great set piece where Eostre discusses the pros and cons of her rituals still being part of American spiritual life, even if people didn’t realize it.

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