A Golden Age and the Fall of Man Myths

Crowned With Ashes
A Sermon by the Rev. Aaron McEmrys
Delivered to the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, March 6, 2011

On the far side of the world, across many mountains, plains and oceans, in a remote corner of northeastern India, live the Khasis, an indigenous people who have been living (so their tradition tells them) among their ancient hills since the beginning of time.

This is their story:

We stand together on the great hill of Sophet-bneng (Heaven's naval). The sky is clear and the sun is bright, but we cannot take our eyes off the great golden tree before us. Up and up it stretches, trunk impossibly thick, branches impossibly high, leaves falling all around us lit up, transparent as if made of honey.

We are the first people, the people of the sixteen huts. We live in the light of the great tree, the Jingkieng ksiar, and climb freely up into the heavens and back down again whenever we want.There is only one language, and all of creation sings its song—rocks and trees, flowers and ferns, birds, fish, animals—and we, we the first people, we sing it too.

But in time we forget, as we have so often since. We forget who we are and where we come from. In our foolish pride we imagine the tree is ours, heaven and earth, ours—and in growing greed and selfishness we try to wall it off. No longer do squirrels race along its golden trunk, no longer do birds sing among honeyed leaves, no longer do children laugh among its gentle boughs. No. Only the chiefs (when did we have chiefs?) and the kings (when did we have kings?) may climb up into the heavens to visit the stars from which we spring.

The wall must be high and it must be guarded, for all the creatures that swim and fly and crawl and walk want desperately to return to the tree—but it is ours, ours alone and so none shall pass.

And although some stories say that Mother/Father God becomes angry with us here and rips the tree up by its aching roots to punish us, we are here, witnesses, and we know otherwise.

The great tree, our golden ladder dims in loneliness and separation. Its roots rot because it so misses the creatures that used to sleep in its shade and climb across its branches. It falls because, behind the walls we erect to fence it, the tree becomes a bridge to nowhere and cannot stand.

And so our golden age ends. We didn't even know it was a golden age until it was over! Now all the creatures of earth and sky speak separate languages — we no longer understand one another. But that's not the worst of it. The worst of it is that when the great tree falls many of our people are still up there, daughters, husbands, grandparents—and now we are down here and we cannot reach them. All we can do is look up into the night sky as they gaze down wistfully in the twinkle of millions and millions of stars.

Every culture, everywhere in the world, has a story something like this; a story that explains how it has come to pass that the world-as-it-should-be is so different than the world-as-it-is.

All of us, even the most cynical among us (for what is cynicism if not a rarified form of despair?) have the sense now and then that the world is not as it should be, and neither are we.

Like the Khasis we yearn for a golden age that probably never was; a time when all was well with the world. The ancient Greeks looked literally back to a lost Golden Age, Christians to the Garden of Eden before the forbidden fruit fell, my Grandparents to the 1950s when the War was over, science promised an end to all suffering and there were enough white picket fences to go around. And today politicians of all stripes cynically invoke a mythical America made up of small, idyllic, no-nonsense Norman Rockwell towns from which we have been dragged by any number of bogeymen: brown-skinned immigrants, gays, shallow toupee-wearing Congressmen, soullessly demonic corporations and the liberal elite, take your pick.

There are as many stories and explanations as there are people. They fight and jostle and contradict one another, but underneath it all every story about every lost Golden Age has something important in common—the sense that things are not as they should be, that something important has been lost, that we've taken a wrong turn, that things that should be whole are broken—and we don't know what to do.

"All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again."

Sisters and brothers, suffering and brokenness are woven into the very fabric of life and all the praying and yearning and community organizing in the world can't change that. Every Golden Age is tarnished. But that doesn't mean we should stop reaching.

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