The pink cherry tree outside the window of my home office is done blooming, its delicate petals blasted away by spring’s bluster, replaced by clusters of tiny green leaves poking out of the ends of branches in origami-like folds that seem to open as I watch.
Each year this tree serves as my living reminder of Easter: a non-descript presence through the winter, its spare, dark limbs calling no attention to themselves until suddenly one day in early spring the tree explodes into brilliant beauty.
Each year, even though I know it’s coming, it takes my breath away. Especially on bright spring mornings when the sun lights up the flowers, it’s hard to get any work done. I can’t take myself away from the window as I stare in dumb awe.
Whatever our theology, this is the impulse that this season stirs in us: the capacity to be struck dumb by the beauty of resurgent life. Even though we know it’s coming, there is something astonishing about how the world around us awakens, and it puts us in the mood to wonder what else is possible. What other great, though improbable, things might the world be capable of, or might we be capable of?
The Christian story of Jesus’ death and resurrection embodies that kind of wondering. How might it be that what follows from death is not an ending, but a beginning? And what might it take for us to live as if that were so?
For what is interesting about the Easter story is not really its supernatural details around the empty grave but what it suggests about what ultimately endures among us. It’s not individual persons or their accomplishments, no matter how grand and glorious they may be. It’s something about how we are changed and can become ourselves agents of transformation.
I’ve brought the Flower Ceremony into this service today because I think we can find a similar message within it. But before we go on, it’s worth lingering a moment to introduce it and Norbert Capek, the Unitarian minister who was responsible not only for the Flower Ceremony but arguably for the existence of the Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia.
Capek was born 1870 in an area of Europe known at the time as Bohemia. He was raised a Roman Catholic, but later joined a Baptist youth group and headed off to seminary, where he was inspired by the emergent Social Gospel movement. A tireless, writer, speaker, preacher, Capek became head of Baptist churches in Bohemia, but soon realized his own liberal leanings were carrying him elsewhere.
With the coming of World War I, Capek fled to the United States, after being warned that he was seen as a threat by authorities. On arriving in the U.S., he found a settlement with a large Slovak Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, but in time he found that the theological gulf between him and the Baptist church had grown too wide for him to continue.
Capek quit the position and he and his wife, Maya, began visiting different churches. They recount that it was their children’s enthusiasm for the Unitarian Church in Orange, New Jersey that persuaded them to attend there. Never underestimate the power of religious education!
With the war’s end the Capeks returned to Prague and with some support from American Unitarian leaders set about building a Unitarian presence there. They opened what they called the Religious Liberal Fellowship in 1922 and drew standing-room crowds. In addition to sermons, Capek composed hymns, led adult classes, and created a counseling center. Within a decade the congregation grew to 3,200 – at the time the largest Unitarian congregation in the world – and about a half dozen other congregations had been started around the country.
The Flower Ceremony was an innovation that the Capeks introduced in June 1923 toward the end of their first year in Prague. At first the services were quite stark, comprising a sermon and a couple of pieces of music. In time Capek added hymns he had written, but he felt they also needed a more spiritual component.
He was treading on tricky ground, though. His congregation was a mix of former Catholics, one-time orthodox Protestants and former liberal Jews, all of whom were wary of ritual. What gesture might help bind these people more closely as a community but not alienate them?
He decided to try an experiment. Each person was asked to bring to the service a flower of his or her choice from their garden or the roadside – even just a twig. Each flower would signify that person’s decision of their own free will to join the others, and the bouquet created would be a symbol of the gathered community. Once the bouquet was complete it would be brought forward and blessed with a prayer from Capek, then returned to the rear of the assembly. At the end of the service, those in attendance would be invited to take a different flower from the one they had brought and leave with it.
That gesture, he said, would symbolize that those who participated accepted one another and agreed to share in both the “beauties and responsibilities” of life in community: Recognizing, in other words, that a spiritually centered life requires that we not only give, but also receive.
Capek’s ceremony was informed by his sunny theology that, as he put it, there is “a hidden cry for harmony with the Infinite” in every person and that the goal of religion is to open the way to each person discovering that connection.
The ceremony was a hit from the beginning and spread widely, and with Capek’s urging the Unitarian movement grew as well. But the rise of Nazi Germany put a chill on liberal religion, and Capek was one of the more noted voices urging his countrymen to hold out against them.
Shortly after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Gestapo broke into Capek’s apartment, confiscated his books and sermons and shortly afterward arrested him and his daughter for treason. He wrote the poem you heard our Speaking Choir read while he was in prison in Dresden. Even there, he insisted, he found a source of strength and connection to the eternal. Prisoners who were with him testified after the war that his quiet conviction fortified them in that grim time.
A German appeals court in April 1942 concluded that Capek was innocent of treason, but the Gestapo ignored the decision and sent him and his daughter to the Dachau concentration camp. Records of invalid transports indicate that he was gassed to death in October 1942.
Capek’s wife, Maya, survived the war, though she didn’t learn of her husband’s death until it was over. She brought the flower ceremony to the U.S. in the 1940s, was herself ordained a minister and briefly served a congregation in Massachusetts.
Nearly 50 years after her death, the ceremony is not as widely practiced as it once was. And here I must admit I may be part of the problem. In my 11 years as your minister, this is, I believe, the second time I have brought it into our worship. Some of you have asked about it, and I’ve tended to nod, “Uh-huh,” and move on. So, here on Easter Sunday might be a good time to make a confession: It’s not that I don’t like the Flower Ceremony – what’s not to like about passing around bunches of beautiful flowers on a sunny spring morning?
It’s just that in my experience, as religious ritual it tends to be, well, pretty light if not downright . . . um . . . empty!
I know, I know. No offense, Norbert and Maya! But really as far as I can see, this is not your fault; it’s ours. Not infrequently in UU congregations the flower ceremony tends to be an occasion to wax poetically about the beauty of flowers, about how they’re all individual, just like we’re all individual and beautiful in our own way. Yay, us!
OK, fine, but, really? Is that all we’ve got to say? There must be a reason why this ceremony captured the imaginations of hundreds of liberally minded people in one of Europe’s most sophisticated cities in the 1930s, a time of intense turmoil, and it wasn’t so that they could smile at each other and say, “Aren’t we special?”
So, in returning to this ceremony, I was determined to look for the energy, the deeper connection that made this ceremony such a transformative moment in that emergent religious community, and what it still might hold for us today.
I think we begin by understanding that the point of this thing was not the flower. It was illuminating to read again that Capek asked his congregants to bring flowers from their homes or roadsides, even just a twig! He wasn’t looking for hothouse wonders from the florist shops. He was asking members of his congregation to share of themselves. The only way that this diverse group would come together was if they were each fully present and fully accepted as they were.
Also, the point of this ritual was not to celebrate each participant as an individual. It was to introduce his congregation to the hard work of building community with the lovely metaphor of creating a bouquet. Capek’s theology spoke to this yearning within each of us to make deeper connections, those sometimes electric, sometimes quietly profound experiences when the world somehow knits itself together and something awakens in us that wasn’t there before.
And he recognized that the experience of community is what triggers those connections in what we free ourselves to give to each other, and what allow ourselves to receive.
We are reminded of where the flower comes from: a plant rooted in the soil – perhaps cozied and fertilized in a garden, perhaps punching up through the leaf mold of the forest floor. It comes with a context that we must get to know and take account of. And that context is what makes it possible for it to bloom.
It’s telling that the Flower Ceremony remained a touchstone for Unitarian communities in Czechoslovakia, even as increasing political pressures made liberal religion a dangerous place to affiliate. The ceremony was an opportunity to renew the heart connection of that community, and the center of value from which it arose: that fundamental assertion of the essential worth of each person and the bond that knit them together.
It didn’t depend on Capek specifically; it depended on the good will and unbroken commitment of each participant. And this brings us back to the Easter story. The true miracle I find at Easter is not the rolling away of the stone. It is the endurance of a community centered in the spirit of love, despite the death of its proclaimer.
How might it be that what follows from death is not an ending, but a beginning? And what might it take for us to live as if that were so? The short answer is that somehow we are changed, and we make ourselves agents of change.
Robert Frost’s poem that we heard earlier points to the brief, elusive pleasures of spring – the bees, the birds, the stray blossoms dancing in the breeze – a moment to savor ahead of the uncertain harvest that awaits us all.
And this, he says, is love, and nothing else is love, that evanescent, soul-stirring experience that wells up within us or that suddenly explodes into our awareness after a dark winter of the soul. Imponderable, really: something before which we simply stand in dumb awe.
But that’s OK. As Frost says, what’s demanded is not that we understand it, but that we learn to fulfill it. Each of us goes about our lives planted in our own soil, yearning for something that we can’t quite name. As Capek wrote in prison with the gas ovens of Dachau waiting, there is a source of strength within us, that if cultivated may give rise to something beautiful.
It is the message that Capek’s flower ceremony still communicates today, inviting us for the sake of our own awakening to build the disciplines of giving and receiving so that we might be agents of each other’s and the world’s blossoming.
So, as you leave today do take a flower with you – even if you didn’t bring one. We’ve got extras. And as you do, reflect on how we build the bonds here that help realize our hope in the world, how you might offer yourself more fully into this community and how we might invite you to receive. As we make space for our mutual blooming, we can ponder what improbable things we might do to bring more beauty, more integrity, more light into the world.