Easter Flower Service

by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, April 21, 2019

In 1987-1988, I lived in Frankfurt, West Germany, still separated from eastern Germany by an economic ideology and an Iron Curtain. I lived that year on the fourteenth floor of a dormitory of Goethe University, which had an educational exchange with Eastern Illinois University, where I got my Bachelor’s Degree and my first Master’s Degree.

I had never lived in a dormitory before because I went to university as a married man with children. But here I was, divorced less than a year, in a new relationship with Walter, doing the long-distance thing in a time before easy communication between continents. And in my dormitory, which had no cafeteria or TV lounge, but only a small shared kitchen on each floor, unlike my brothers’ university dormitories in Illinois, I could go days without seeing any of my floor mates except in the elevator or at the mailboxes.

But one floor up was different. That floor was very social together, going to movies, going on road trips, going out to dinner together. They adopted me, and I joined in their social life. Flavia Pais was a Romanian who lived on that floor. Her mother of the Saxon German minority, her father a Romanian, so she had grown up bilingual and escaped to West Germany at the earliest opportunity. In that year her father retired, and because he was retired, and no longer considered a needed citizen of the Socialist Republic, he was allowed to come to Germany for a few months to visit his daughter.

Walter and I would be spending the next year in Cluj-Napoca, the city known to most Unitarian Universalists by its Hungarian name of Kolozsvár, a city shared by Romanian, Hungarian, German, and Romany ethnicities, but dominated by its Romanian majority, who had the power of the Communist state behind them. Knowing this, I took a Romanian class at Goethe University. And I engaged Flavia’s father as a tutor to teach me as much Romanian as I could fit into a few months.

Holy Week came along and Flavia and her father invited me to go with them to a concert: Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The concert was in Frankfurt’s old opera house. I have told you that my ex-wife got the church in the divorce. But, though the fundamentalist theology had stopped working for me a few years before. Here I was, a year out of a marriage and a year out of the religion that had shaped my life. I was still in mourning for what was lost, what was still unreconstructed. And the words of Martin Luther’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion washed over me. I wept. I was in mourning along with Christendom, though my interior life was not the message of the Church.

After the concert, Flavia and her father went to visit Flavia’s aunt who lived in the city, and I walked, alone, through the darkened streets, from the center of the banking capitol of Germany out to the edge of the city and my dormitory. Musically I was filled, but my soul was unquieted. Perhaps if I had grown up with Holy Week as a separate experience from Easter, I might have thought differently about it. But my parents didn’t pay attention to Holy Week, to Good Friday, because Easter was the deal. Resurrection. And I was still mourning. Experiencing loss, even as I knew it was both inevitable and necessary.

The Easter that I never experienced that year – in spite of attending Easter mass at the Frankfurter Dom, the cathedral – the thing that Easter was about was that life proceeds after death. That what seems like the end, that end that we are wretched in the face of, the end that threatens to do us in – THAT is not an absolute end but a transformation, a turning point, a time when productive potential is unleashed where we had only seen destruction.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. (John 12:24-25 KJV)

It is not a scientific representation but a poetic one. The seed planted in the ground loses its seedness and is transformed in the development of its plantness, through which its capacity to feed humanity is released.

And Jesus disciples, who were bereft when their leader, their teacher, their friend died, experienced something unexpected. They told the story of resurrection because the experience of tragic loss was transformed in their lives, in their understanding, and after fifty days, something new erupted onto the scene that could not have begun without the whole experience.

Easter is about emerging from the goo of the cocoon, becoming that next thing, moving forward, changed. Because it is impossible to stay always where we are and where we are comfortable. And the world needs to be our next self rather than being stuck in what was, even though what was was also life-giving.

Easter is celebration! Easter is the joy of transformation! Emerge into a new light!

© Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley

by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, April 21, 2019

Maybe it’s only an accident that Easter celebrations involve flowers so numerous they frequently overpower the meeting house with their sweet scent. Easter comes in spring as flowers are bursting onto the landscape in many places. And so there is a natural connection.

The Flower Service was created by Norbert Čapek, who founded the Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia. He introduced this special service to that church on June 4, 1923. For some time he had felt the need for some symbolic ritual that would bind people more closely together. The format had to be one that would not alienate any who had forsaken other religious traditions. The traditional Christian communion service with bread and wine was unacceptable to the members of his congregation because of their strong reaction against the Catholic faith. So he turned to the native beauty of their countryside for elements of a communion which would be genuine to them. This simple service was the result. It was such a success that it was held yearly just before the summer recess of the church. Čapek called it Flower Celebration. [1]

The flower communion was brought to the United States in 1940 and introduced to the members of our Cambridge, Massachusetts, church by Dr. Čapek’s wife, Maja V. Čapek. The Czech-born Maja had met Norbert Čapek in New York City while he was studying for his Ph.D., and it was at her urging that Norbert left the Baptist ministry and turned to Unitarianism. The Čapeks returned to Czechoslovakia in 1921 and established the dynamic liberal church in Prague; Maja Čapek was ordained in 1926. It was during her 1940 tour of the United States that Maja brought the flower service from Prague to the Unitarian church in Cambridge. Unfortunately, Maja was unable to return to Prague due to the outbreak of World War II, and it was not until the war was over that Norbert Čapek’s death in a Nazi concentration camp was discovered. From this beginning the service has spread to many, to most of our Unitarian Universalist congregations and has been adapted along the way in ways that make sense locally. Only a few of our congregations observe the flower ritual on Easter Sunday. [1]

American Unitarian and Universalist churches were not unfamiliar with services that focused on the beauty of nature as found in flowers decorating their sanctuaries, but the symbolism of Čapek’s flower service was something new and it has stayed with us.

And what do flowers symbolize for us? Many things, of course. Flowers in nature do not grow in rows but in an unruly tumble, a struggle for survival, a source of beauty, a beauty through which much of the food that nourishes humanity and all the animal kingdom. Flowers bring economic stability through the production they entail. Tulips ruled in Renaissance Holland. Roses, especially red roses, are understood my many to be a symbol of love. The rose is a symbol of the revelation at Sinai.

At Christmas time, many Christians sing the German carol “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” which uses the rose as a symbol for Jesus:

This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.

The theology of the carol is different from mine. It may be different from yours. But it is a symbol of transformation, of what can happen when a seed falls into the ground and loses its seedness, becoming, instead, a plant, capable of blooming and feeding the earth.

The seed needs the dirt, needs the muck, needs the decomposing debris, the composted manure, all that seems negative and nasty, as nourishment, to develop its essential self. Flowers transform the muck of the earth, through the illumination of the sun, into the life of all souls, all peoples, all.

Flowers gathered together in a vase symbolize the beauty of a community where unique individuals come together, not losing their uniqueness but creating new beauty together.

[1] Historical note on Norbert and Maya Čapek drawn from Reginald Zottoli:

© Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley