Because my father was the minister at the Methodist churches in Boonville and Philo, and therefore I grew up in a church environment, I have always been drawn to the beauty and symbolism of the Easter lily. I have very fond memories of this sacred day from childhood, attending parties and Easter egg hunts, awakening before dawn to attend the sunrise service, and savoring ham banquets with my family (and sometimes the entire congregations) following the regular services. And the image of the altar strewn with potted white Easter lilies will forever be a visual memory that I deeply cherish. There is an excellent online article on the Easter lily, beginning with its history, ending with its ongoing care in the home, and with the mythic symbolism sandwiched in between, located here.
The above photo on the left is a reproduction of Bartel Bruyn’s painting The Annunciation, Figure 218 on page 246 of Joseph Campbell’s book The Mythic Image (1974, Princeton University Press), where he points out that there are white and red lilies located in the vase at the Virgin Mary’s knee. The above online article also refers to this connection between the white Easter lily and the Virgin Mary, and relates the legend of white lilies being found in her empty tomb three days after her burial, “…the pure white petals signifying her spotless body and the golden anthers her soul glowing with heavenly light” (p. 4). Another mythological reference tying the flower to maternal feminine energy, this one Greek, states that “…the lily sprang from the milk of Hera, the mytho-logical Queen of Heaven” (p. 3). These maternal references are paralleled in the harvesting of the plant itself, which is the most fascinating fact printed in the article.
A commercial-sized bulb often starts as a small, baby bulblet growing underground on the stem of its mother plant. When the mother plant is harvested, the bulblet is carefully removed and planted in another field.
One year later, the bulblet, now called a yearling, is dug up again. The yearling is planted in a new field for another full year of cultivation and specialized care to allow it to grow into its full potential, maturity, and status as a commercial bulb. (p. 2)
The connection of the white lily with Easter is not only based on its symbolism of the qualities of the Virgin Mary, but equally with the sacrifice of her son Jesus on the cross, and his eventual resurrection. Biblical legends state that not only were lilies found growing in the Garden of Gethsemane after his death, but that they also sprang from the places on the ground where his sweat fell from the cross. Hence, the white Easter lily is a sign not only of sacrifice, but of the renewed hope of rebirth and rejuvenation that accompanies the beginning of spring. Jesus also mentions “the lilies of the field” in his Sermon on the Mount, in which he states that “…they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet … Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (p.3, from Matthew 6: 28 & 29, KJV).
In her series of Harry Potter books, British author J.K. Rowling uses extremely allegorical, very carefully selected names for each of her characters. Harry Potter’s deceased mother’s name was Lily, who sacrificed her own life at the hands of the evil Lord Voldemort to save that of her toddler son, Harry. Throughout the books, she appears periodically in the form of a disembodied spiritual guide for her son, assisting him in avoiding the same fate that she and her husband James, Harry’s father, met before the stories begin. There is an even further significant tie-in with the flowering plant in the family’s last name, since they grow and are transported in pots for use at Easter. In addition to fitting the Orphan archetype, Harry is also a Christ-like Divine Child, in that he is the Chosen One to defeat Lord Voldemort and hence avenge his parents’ deaths.
By far my favorite story involving Easter lilies, however, is depicted in the other above photo, taken by a member of the congregation of Trinity United Methodist Church in Sacramento on Easter Sunday, 1985. I directed the children and youth in a drama-tization of Oscar Wilde’s story The Selfish Giant, one of my favorite stories for children, particularly at Easter. The story can be found online at:
http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/SelGia.shtml, and relates the tale of the selfish giant who initially would not allow anyone into the garden surrounding his castle, but whose heart is melted by an encounter with the Christ child, after which all of the children are welcomed into the garden to play. At the point in the narration when I read, “Through a little hole in the wall the children had crept in, and they were sitting in the branches of the trees. In every tree that he could see there was a little child. And the trees were so glad to have the children back again that they had covered themselves with blossoms, and were waving their arms gently above the children’s heads,” each of the children, spontaneously, without my direction, gently lifted one of the Easter lilies off of the floor of the altar, and raised it over his or her head — a priceless moment of beauty. ¥¥