Archive for April 10th, 2009

One of the telling moments, when you seek to be a detached and cynical atheist, is when you open a copy of the New Testament to read the account of the Last Supper and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – just for research purposes.
For you may have disregarded the myth since you left school and stopped going to church – which in my case was 40 years ago – but there is no escaping the hold of this powerful and moving story. Especially, the version according to John.
This is one of the stories that we learnt as children and it survives in our imaginations with a potency that Red Riding Hood and Santa Claus just don’t have.
And in a rapidly secularising Ireland, Easter retains a magic and enthralls like few other times of the year.
Part of that, of course, is because it is bigger, for most of us, than the Passion. We have our own rituals around eggs, bonnets and the flight to Donegal which have nothing to do with Christian heritage.
Easter is the first holiday of the Spring. April sunshine — when you get it — awakens a nostalgia for freedom and romance, the best parts of Springs past. The sap is rising. Something of our own selves, overshadowed by winter, is resurrected at Easter.
When we were children, we went to the church to pray at each of the stations of the Cross and to contemplate the suffering of Jesus. There was a bit of guilt-tripping going on there too. It is still the message of most churches that we are to blame, ourselves, for the suffering inflicted. God had to become a man and suffer as a man because we were sinful.
There is actually very little sense of that burdensome idea in the Gospel itself. Jesus never says, I have to go off and get flayed now, because Adam ate the apple, and you’re no better yourselves.
It is clear from the Gospel accounts that Jesus was crucified because he had rebelled against the Temple. He was – like myself – profoundly anti clerical. He is my anti-clerical hero.
I personally think the story has been damaged by the mythologising in the Christian tradition.
Without any interpretation added on to it, the story of the Last Supper and the arrest and crucifixion in John’s gospel evokes deep feelings. I suspect that this story would still be with us as a piece of treasured ancient literature, engaging our fascination still, even without the gloss. In a secularising Ireland, where fewer and fewer people take the church interpretation literally, it would be a tragedy if this story was lost to us because it was dismissed as only having Christian significance.
In most of the Christian tradition, Jesus is understood to have known himself to be the son of God, on a mission to lay down his life for the sins of humanity. What is lost in that version, is the earliest heartbeat detectable in world literature, of a man agonising and struggling.
Some of the Christian churches have gone back to the text, stripping away the ritual and theology of, say, the Catholic Churches, to find a simpler Eucharist.
The Last Supper is remembered by Roman Catholics as the establishment of communal sacrament, exclusive to true believers. The evangelicals read the story more truly when they offer the bread more freely. After all, Jesus did not refuse it to Judas.
But their conviction that Jesus was God makes much of the story unintelligible. Why would he have gone into the desert for forty days? Usually such a pilgrim is trying to draw closer to the divine – what need would Jesus as God have had to do that?
There are some elements of the story which are perplexing. When Jesus rode on the donkey into Jerusalem, in Matthew’s version, and reached into a fig tree for something to eat, and didn’t find fresh fruit, he cursed the fig tree never to bear fruit again. What was that all about? The modern Christian perspective allows little room for the petulance of Christ.
The story lends itself more to creative rereading than to ossification in doctrine.
There are numerous little flashes of temper, and even sarcasm, in the gospels. ‘The poor you will have always with you.’ There just isn’t an interpretation of those words available to us that does any credit to him. But they ring so truly that they tell us that they are the words of a real man; just not the man Jesus as envisaged by Hollywood or in the little holy pictures I used to have in my prayer book.
Nowadays, I am more likely to encounter the story of the Passion in literature and music than in church. There have been numerous novels retelling the crucifixion, from Kazantzakis to CK Stead. The body of music continues to expand, from the passions of Bach to the Seven Last Words of James MacMillan, religious music that sells to cultured secular people.
This story will not die so long as thier are minds to engage with it and retell it. It might even have a better chance to flourish when the churches have lost hold of it altogether.

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