It happens every year. On Good Friday evening, we gather silently in church for the most solemn night of the year. We sing songs like ‘There is a green hill’. Sombre passages of scripture are read, concerning Jesus’ suffering and death. In my particular church, Holy Trinity Idle in north Bradford, we have a tradition of individually going up to a large rough cross made from branches, and touching the wood. Not superstitiously, but as a tangible symbolic way of personally connecting afresh with the profound, mysterious ‘truth’ we hold onto, that two millennia ago, this man Jesus died so our sins could be forgiven and we could go free.
Then, on Easter Sunday morning, we gather again and the mood could hardly be more different. “He is risen!” and “Hallelujah!” are loudly declaimed by vicar, worship group and congregation alike. Beaming faces, jubilant songs, and often a children’s activity involving colourful objects, running around and eggs. (I once saw a vicar swallowing a raw one from a pint glass during a sermon – I’m still recovering from the trauma).
I personally grew up with these beliefs and practices, and I continue in them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also sometimes look askance and personally wonder what the heck it’s all about. Or ponder the disturbing reality that for the majority of people in my culture and society, the whole fabric of Christianity makes very little sense at all, and is considered furthermore irrelevant. In wider discourse, from mass ‘Strictly’ viewing to Brexit talk of ‘bringing the country back together’, we plainly value a sense of unity. So the lack of public consensus on the deepest questions about life, the universe and everything bothers me.
As a means of trying to relate a little closer to my unbelieving friends and acquaintances, allow me, then, to sketch out a few of my own very real questions and concerns about the faith, here particularly pertaining to the Easter story. As I say, sketch. It’s good just to start airing these things; I’d love to return to them.
First up, we pretty much all recognise the realities of human imperfection, failure, sometimes downright wickedness, concomitant guilt and shame – and both our profound need for and the beauty of forgiveness. But why, indeed, did a man have to hang on a cross to deal with it? The wrath of God, sacrifice and the very notion that the divine human intervention happened at such a point of history that it had to assume the barbaric form of crucifixion… I may need to go back to the theology books, but that doesn’t stop part of me wondering, why Lord, why?
Then, resurrection. It sounds great in the context of, say, Doctor Who, the Stone Roses or that Alien film which has it in the title. But again, what is going on here? Whatever happened, happened absolutely ages ago, is utterly shrouded in mystery, and if you’re not a believer appears to have no bearing on a 21st century world of trains, planes, automobiles, wifi, bitcoin or Miley Cyrus. Yes, even for a hesitant disciple like me with skin in the game, I get that. The seeming remoteness, irrelevance, not to say ‘unicorn’ quality. Hmm.
There, just two things – mere lines of a sketch. In closing, I have a couple of positive angles on it all too. I’m re-reading doorstop tome cum riveting detective story ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God’ by awesomely erudite scholar NT Wright, and am struck afresh by his accumulation of evidence and insight suggesting that something extraordinary does indeed lie at the heart of Christian faith and the birth of the early church. Then there’s the conviction that the Spirit of the risen Jesus mysteriously lives, breathes and works today. And finally, the gospel’s power to embrace and respond to our deepest longings, needs and desires, for now and eternity. It’s not for nothing the Aslan death and resurrection narrative in ‘The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe’ wields immense imaginative power. Nor that Passion week is called ‘the greatest story ever told’.