An Easter reflection for April 2021.
They say that you can’t choose your family. This ‘wise saying’ suggests many facets of insight, one of which is to imply that it is practical as well as possible to choose your friends. I am not sure the difference between family and friends is so clear, at least not in the Church. We might think that we have chosen to befriend certain folk who we think will be more comfortable to get along with. “Those are the ones I want to be friends with!” But as time goes by, we discover that our new friends have now become our brothers and sisters, and what’s more have started behaving in ways we don’t approve of; and saying things that we don’t much like. I introduced this piece as an Easter reflection– which is to say that when I look in the mirror, I may well notice that there are some things about me I don’t much like either.
So it might be best to start again, which is what the traditional Church calendar is good for- encouraging us to go over it again each year. ‘See if you understand it better this time.’ The Church is really born at Easter, we are told, so Easter is the genesis of the Church Age. That’s why we don’t have a ‘Creation festival’ in the calendar, looking back to Genesis 1&2. Christmas sends us the Incarnate Jesus, again and again: Immanuel, God is with us Again! While Easter is our collective Birthday. Though the circumstances are not at all like a regular party.
We need to exert effort in mind and imagination to revisit familiar places in the Church calendar. I do like a ripened cheese, but if left in the fridge for too long, it eventually loses its appeal. An old house can be a homely house, until you try to pass through a doorway and get a face full of cobwebs. My birth family stayed away from ‘Church’ through my upbringing because they found the fustiness overwhelming. I was intrigued by a brief foray to Sunday School as a young boy, and the irregular visit of the local vicar to my school, but that was it- an infrequent visitation with a very unfashionable almost-forgotten relative in need of a liberal aerosol spray of ‘Alpine Fresh’.
The good thing about elderly relatives is that they are still alive. Where there is life, there is hope! Though a very modern Protestant, I chose to work in the local Catholic community for much of my teaching career; a very deliberate choice. I watched with close interest to see how their community life was framed by the more valued aspects of their tradition, while visibly adorned with rosary and crucifix. Their extensive liturgy encapsulates so much deep reflection, distilled and honed as each sentence has emerged from generations of meditation. I happily follow the text along under my breath, pausing only on the odd occasion to skip a bit I don’t witness to.
Frankly, I am often more comfortable with this sort of theological editing than I am in the company of some of my closer friends who seem to value spontaneity rather more highly than is good for us. My crowd says that its all about life, and being real; being in the now with God in His Spirit. Which is obviously what Jesus is in favour of. He raised the dead to life and spoke the living words of God for today. He did not send his disciples to tend tombs. In fact, he forbade it. But in our enthusiasm for spontaneous life and following the Spirit, our ‘spiritual chatter’ can be like so many bubbles, an insubstantial froth that does not convey, even in human words, very much of the glory of God.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.
Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.Psalm 19:14; Psalm 139:4
The truth is, we have minds that very much like to wander. All over the place. So when we come to pray- shall I sit? Shall I stand? Oh, first I need to… We need an abundance of discipline, especially self-discipline, and that is what schools and services and much spiritual stuff is trying to give us: frameworks of life, disciplined tracks to be trained in so we can be in shape for the daily race. For my Catholic friends, a crucifix is just that- a gym session for the inner heart. As you know, not every gym membership is used to its best effect.
Christianity has been thoroughly absorbed into our social history and culture, particularly in the West, beyond our ability to determine the boundaries of its influence. That’s certainly the perspective I had as a child. ‘Where is God in all this now?’ I asked myself through my formative years. My testimony is that God has breathed fresh air into my understanding- into me, not only through those who first witnessed to me as a young person, but also though fellowship and networking with Christians of other flavours, some with very different habits. The illumination of the Spirit comes to us from the strangest of sources, if only we have eyes to see.
Those who discipled me had little time for the architectural trappings of Christian tradition. “The Church is the people, not the building!” we like to cry together. Focus on the wrong thing, we are warned, and what is really important becomes blurred. True enough. Yet when I meet my fellow Christian folk who are alive to the Spirit of God and commune in a community building parts of which may date back a thousand years or so, they bring a vital connection to the generations of lives that were lived in that place in the light of the gospel that is not quite so evident in my hired sports hall or school. Too much of our so-called modern culture has turned its back on everything prior to the transistor and the jet plane. So many of my charismatic friends seem to think in the same way, noting only two dates of significance in their histories, (i) the first Pentecost, and (ii) a Holy Spirit revival in nineteen sixty something.
So much of value is missed in between. Take this stained glass window (above). This piece of physical and functional art speaks life to me in its depiction of this Easter episode. Less stylised than most, and not particularly formal in its design, it nevertheless stands in the long tradition of reflection on the stations of the cross and all the events of Holy Week. We are drawn into this group, transported to the dusky moment that these burly figures are manhandling Jesus’ dead body into the family tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. They have all taken their turns, I sense; the one holding the torch aloft is leaning tiredly against the stones, while another is now kneeling, as all he can do is pray after his earlier stint at carrying the corpse. While one is straining forward with his back to us, the living face we see most clearly is earnestly focused on the tomb doorway, ensuring that the corporeal remains of Jesus are safely delivered to their resting place with proper dignity. Yet this sombre panorama is shot through with light, beyond the power of the flame above their heads. The light that transfuses this picture illuminates both Jesus’ body and his carriers with an aura of hope. The picture is framed to quietly draw our attention to the spear hole in Jesus’ torso. Incarnation, crucifixion and expectation of resurrection are fused in the glassy image. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions…by His stripes we are healed’, whispers Isaiah through the long reach of time [Is 53:5]. ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.’ Which is what that Catholic Mass used to say, until they updated it. How very modern!
We don’t do stained glass these days, as we now have movies to tell stories for us. There have been many attempts over the recent years of screen and TV history to transfer the gospel accounts to screen. It may be very stereotypical to lump them together thus: a procession of bearded figures sporting miles of nightdress fabric and every model of leather sandal known to man, while the lines of umpteen parables are rehearsed as a cure for insomnia. This description cannot apply to the 2004 ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ personally funded and directed by Mel Gibson and colleagues. We watched this again as a family one evening last week, and no one fell asleep. As I’ve said, there is value to be gleaned in listening to others, to seeing things from their perspectives, in making the effort to look past their failings and weaknesses to distil what is distinctive and significant. I agree with critics that discern a degree of exaggeration in anti-Pharisaism in the portrayal of the Jewish priests in the film. But we misunderstand the gospel account if we do not realise that everyone has it in for Jesus one way or another- even his chosen friends abandon him at the crucial moment that they might have stood in solidarity with him, and the film shows this clearly enough.
The violence is also exaggerated, I daresay, though I wouldn’t really want to have to evidence that opinion. It is a directorial decision to emphasise the physical reality of the crucifixion for modern audiences inured to unrealistic big screen violence. The claim being made is that the Spirit overcomes the flesh, which is the biblical claim, so I am content. God in Christ overcomes sin that has had its full work in humanity, in me, and so portraying his scourging and crucifixion in this manner is not inappropriate. We cannot see the spiritual price that Jesus pays for us, so the physical pains stand proxy for that in this cinematic retelling. I am content. There are a number of artistic/ directorial variations to the gospel accounts which draw us into the ‘now’ of those timeless events on the Via Delorosa, powerfully including the way Simon of Cyrene is brought closer to carry the cross alongside Jesus, rather than independently from him. Simon, and we, are brought together to share in Jesus’ sufferings.
At this watching, there is one scene that I found to be shot through with particular light, yet it too is a figment of the imagination of later saints, not at all part of the gospel accounts. We are shown Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene frustrated in their efforts to get close to Jesus on his journey from Pilate’s court to Golgotha. For Gibson, a Catholic, the relationship between Mary and Jesus is of particular significance, so it is not surprising that further emphasis is brought to this, even in addition to the particular episode close to the foot of the cross with John the disciple, which is recorded at John 19:26. Frankly, I love what Gibson does here. And it is much more than simply an affirmation of the significance of Mary as the mother of the Christ, a headline feature of Catholic dogma. Mary succeeds in getting close to her son Jesus, to reassure him, to touch him as a mother, as she touched him intimately as the one who birthed and suckled him as a baby, who schooled him and watched him grow as a boy and man. From before Augustine of Hippo, way back in the fifth-sixth centuries, Mary has been known in the ancient Church as the Theotokos, “the one who gives birth to God.” This is an alternative rendition of the Incarnation: Christ is both fully God and fully man, so must have a human mother. God’s will is to choose her, but Mary has to be a consciously willing partner to this creation of God as man in God’s world, else it is meaningless. So Mary understands and agrees with Angel Gabriel and the Holy Spirit to what God intends to bring about through her physical partnership. In the Christmas account we are told that Mary treasured these things in her heart [Luke 2:19]. She knows more about what is going on, because she is an agent in it, and she anticipates what will come about. Yet the film takes this even further, drawing in the words of the apostle John in Revelation about God’s final intention to remake Creation: to bring this era of creation to climax through the other side of judgement to New Creation. As Mary cradles her fallen son’s face- the One she knows is more than her son, he looks gratefully back, returning her love in this extraordinary moment, summing up their unique relationship and speaking as God to her about the future they are making together:
“See, Mother, I make all things New.”The Passion of the Christ, 2004 Director Mel Gibson. ICON production. See this clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpa_D4K8c1c
Then in a work-a-day manner, Jesus promptly turns ahead, shoulders the tree again and carries it forward to the mountaintop.
(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson
- Crucifixes on Irish cottage floor. david-knox-5Cu7ZSQUKnY-unsplash
- Cross amongst concrete skyscrapers. louis-moncouyoux-NWS30LJ0GoA-unsplash
- Stained glass window; unknown site. rod-long-A2k_ddBMusE-unsplash