Spring equinox always arrives in what feels like the middle of winter. Snow falls in the Northwest while the Northeast tries to dig out from under the most recent storm and ice still covers Midwestern roads. Even in Los Angeles, spring does not really feel like, well, spring until sometime in late April or early May. The foundational spring stories of the Northern Hemisphere also have that hidden element.
Passover in the Jewish tradition tells the story of a people oppressed by enslavement in Egypt, the dominant empire of its time. Over and over again terrible experiences overtake the land, but the slave masters refuse to let go. A plague of frogs is not enough. Nor locusts. Nor dying animals. Nine times the plagues come and the masters will not relent. Then, suddenly, with number ten, the slaves are released, or actually, told to leave. It could have happened after the first disaster. It could have happened following any one of them, but apparently not. Suddenly, a people in slavery are free.
Easter, which is the Christian spring story, occurs during a Passover more than a millennium later and is a kind of parallel version of that past – with the Jewish people finding themselves under the thumb of yet another empire. This time, as the oppressors face a divided but restless populace agitating for freedom, a side drama takes center stage. An itinerant teacher from the northern provinces arrives, his reputation preceding him. A spontaneous demonstration against the occupiers greets his arrival. On his second day, he rips into the bankers. By the end of the week, the empire executes him. In the aftermath, a new movement slowly infiltrates, then replaces the established order. It takes two centuries — a slow process that no one could have predicted.
I have long thought you could have Western civilization without the Easter story, but not without the Passover story, but maybe we need both of them to remind us that liberation always comes unexpectedly and often silently, unseen, in the shadows and only after some long wait and struggle. It certainly did not feel like something earthshaking occurred when the calendar said it was vernal equinox. The weather did not suddenly change and the plants did not abruptly begin flourishing. The change slipped in without notice.
It must have felt that way the day Rosa Parks sat down on the bus in Montgomery. The oppression of American Apartheid was deeply embedded in the system. Few African Americans in the South were allowed to vote. Work for them was menial and demeaning. The white master class ruled by fear and intimidation and terror. People had sat down on the wrong side of the color bar many times in many places before that day. When she was hustled off the bus and into the hands of the police, not many thought much about it. Even in Montgomery. But it was the right spark at the right moment that began a motion that still rolls through our nation.
When Cesar Chavez decided to leave the Community Services Organization and head out into the countryside to organize among farm workers, no one noticed. No brass band greeted him in Delano, and no foundation stepped up to offer funding. Over the next decades he met failure and defeat – yet he stirred the conscience of a nation, created a self-awareness and identity among a people, and launched a thousand organizers in communities and workplaces across this country and beyond its borders. That California is the only region in this nation where unions have increased in membership is a direct legacy of the spark he struck in an obscure place.
I believe that we do not know, and cannot know, where a spark will ignite fires that blaze for justice, just as we do not know when spring has arrived, unless we are looking at the calendar. But arrive it does so the world can go on.