HAS the world been so preoccupied with revelations about sexual abuse by priests and atheism conferences (which seem to be a growing evangelical market) that it can seem almost quaint to ponder the significance of Easter, as if the greatest cycle of the Christian tradition could still yield something that speaks to us? Or has the bell really tolled for Western Christendom?
Many years ago, poet Peter Levi, then a Jesuit priest, gave a eulogy in Westminster Cathedral at the funeral of the great poet David Jones. It was a sermon that asked for comparison with John Donne, one-time poet, rake and dean of St Paul’s, he of ‘’for whom the bell tolls’’ fame.
In it, Levi said of the figure of Christ: ‘’He was murdered before the beginning of time.’’ It’s a startling formulation but it points to the notion in the Christian tradition of a disaster at the outset.
What stands behind the Garden of Eden myth of Adam and Eve, the serpent and the apple and the whole catastrophe of original sin, so called, was that strong inclination towards wickedness.
It desecrated innocence as a man might desecrate the innocence of a child, it made brother kill brother, as Cain killed Abel. It required the sacrifice, in human terms, of the being who underlays the principle of love that created the universe.
So the Son of God became the Son of Man. ‘’The word was made flesh and dwelt among us,’’ as the start of John’s Gospel says, with its glittering image of the Word, the Platonic logos, shining in a darkness that cannot ‘’comprehend’’ it, cannot put it out.
Everyone understands it at some level: the theology whereby Christ dies and rises again. For large numbers of people, the story not only doesn’t resonate, it seems radically false even in theory, which is why they clamour for a denial of any religious perspective.
Oddly enough, they reject what James Joyce in Ulysses, quoting the catechism, refers to as ‘’a strong inclination towards evil’’, even as they condemn the paedophile priests as unforgivable.
Well, the molesting clergy are like the brutal policemen and negligent doctors and corrupt politicians: they come with the territory because pennies have two sides.
There is plenty of talk in the Gospels about the priestly caste of Jesus’ day as whited sepulchres, just as the mercy of the forgiveness of Christian teaching is an infinite thing.
Part of the secular world’s incomprehension of Christian values comes from the concept of mercy. But has the bell really tolled for the Easter story that underlies it all?
The story of the Passion that reverberates with such power in Bach’s St Matthew Passion and with such an extraordinary musical meditation to accompany it? The image of the slaughtered Christ (so corpse-like, so dead) in the Isenheim altarpiece by Gruenewald and then, beyond it, the radiance of the risen Christ?
Have we really got beyond that as a story? The man in the garden asking his father that this cup, this suffering, be taken away from him and then concluding, ‘’Not my will but thine’’. Judas betraying him with a kiss, Peter thrice denying knowing him.
‘’Shall I crucify your king?’’ Pilate asks the crowd baying for Jesus’ death. ‘’We have no king but Caesar,’’ they say, and he caves in. ‘’I am innocent of the blood of this just man,’’ he says, trying to persuade himself.
So they nail him to the cross.
That’s the tragic part, the Good Friday part, and it is as stark and terrible as anything in our literature. Nowhere more so than in that great cry from the cross, ‘’Eli, eli, lama sabacthani’’ - ‘’My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’’
It is a tragic perspective, because through the eyes of the Son of Man we feel the total abandonment by any spirit that might be benign.
Easter Sunday is the triumph. Nothing is more moving than the darkened church at midnight Mass and then the place flooded with light.
No wonder that under the old rite they go straight into the renewal of vows: ‘’Do you renounce the Devil and all his works?’’
The darkness has not been able to quell the love that moves the sun and other stars. It was not for nothing that our civilisation linked this to old fertility rituals.
And whatever we believe in or don’t believe in, we should suspend our disbelief about the power of this Easter story that has shaped some of the greatest imaginings of our civilisation. It was Thomas, the doubter, who said that unless he could put his hands in Jesus’ wounds, he wasn’t having a bar of it.
And it was Thomas, humbled, who said: ‘’Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.’’
When it comes to the great religions, the affinities between Christianity and Judaism and Islam, the twinned spiritualities of Buddhism and Hinduism, there are a lot of people who would like to get beyond their ‘’unbelief’’.
And there are plenty, too, who want to crow their unbelief like a creed that could move the stars. But this can’t change the power of the story of the man who was done to death and rose again.