The Shoals and Shallows of Easter
Even though Easter homilies are plastered across the media, Easter brings out the worst in homilists. There’s a simple reason for this. Easter simply doesn’t make sense. It exists at cross purposes with the world — always. It’s a bit like when someone loved has died. The world steadfastly refuses to stop, even though, for the person in grief, time seems to stand still, as the world marches relentlessly on.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
And yet Easter is all about new life, risen life, glorious, transformed, transcendent life — and there’s no such thing. So the Easter homilist is left to make bricks without straw, meaning without purpose, content without substance.
Take three homilists and compare them: Ratzinger, Nichols and O’Brien. One thing that should strike you immediately is that these three homilies are already publicly available, one day after Easter! In other words, marginalised or not, as Cardinal O’Brien suggests, Christians clearly are a focus of public attention, and their message, for all its supposed marginalisation, is being carried by all the wire services so that we get to read the words almost at the same time that they were spoken.
But what should strike us most is the sheer inconsequence of what these three church leaders, one the pope, one the Roman Catholic primate of England, the third the Roman Catholic leader in Scotland, have to say on this, the major feast day of the Christian calendar. The Scottish cardinal takes the opportunity to complain about the marginalisation of Christianity, even though what he has to say is plastered all across the media. If this is marginalisation, it would be interesting to find out what main-streaming Christianity in the public sphere would look like! And, besides, what he is basically complaining about is that Christians are no longer able, with impunity, to express their narrow-mindedness, and their efforts to marginalise minorities by their prejudices. If the public recognition that O’Brien is demanding consists in permission for Christians to act unjustly, then how much respect should be given to his opinions?
And Vincent Nichols is just as bad. He doesn’t complain about bed and breakfast owners or relationship counsellors not being allowed to discriminate against gay couples. No, not at all. He decides that he will pillory the dying instead. After all, by rising from the dead, Jesus has somehow vaulted beyond the corruption and death that is the human lot, so people who are dying or suffering from chronic pain and degenerative conditions should not have the right to bring their sufferings to an end. Why not? Well, because they don’t own themselves, says Nichols. Life, he says knowingly, “is a gift and not a possession: a gift of God not a self-made acquisition.” And what do you know: “In Christ’s resurrection we glimpse the full splendour of that gift,” he says, knowingly, as though everyone must be able to see through the prism of the stories told about a far off, but very doubtful, event, this imagined splendour, even through the existential despair of dying. By what right does Nichols make this claim, at the same time that his brother bishop to the north makes the claim for public recognition of this story in the public square?
Ah, but the pope has an answer to this question. Reason, he thinks, demands it. But there is a curious roundaboutness to this reason. Ratzinger tries to give an expansive account of the grand sweep of “salvation history” (Heilsgeschichte), from creation, through covenant, to the renewal of covenant and creation in the resurrection. He remarks on an astonishing transformation. The original creation account tells us that God rested on the seventh day, but Christians replaced this sacred day with the first day of the week, when Jesus rose (or was raised) from the dead, and then he makes this argument for the truth of the resurrection
This revolutionary development that occurred at the very beginning of the Church’s history [the dramatic change of the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week] can be explained only by the fact that something utterly new happened that day. [my italics]
So, it must be true. Jesus truly rose from the dead on that day “when he showed himself to his disciples as the Risen Lord.”
And with this, of course, the pope has really foundered on the shoals of reason. There is simply no reason why this change cannot be explained in any number of different ways. Just a desire to distinguish the new faith from the old would be sufficient to justify such a shift of emphasis from Saturday to Sunday. And Sunday itself, its name sacred to the Sun god, the giver of life, which rises every morning, as it did that first Easter — if there was ever a first Easter, and this was not a tradition which took a generation of two to develop — in contrast to the Jewish Saturday, made the distinction clear. If the early Jewish church could not convince their fellow Jews to give up their faith, in favour of faith in a Saviour god of apparently pagan provenance, there is every reason why there should have developed a trend in favour of a separate holy day, to mark the difference between faiths so different in their understanding of covenant and holiness.
But such a commitment leads the pope even further in the direction of idiosyncrasy and the sleep of reason. The resurrection, that imagined event that underlies Easter celebrations, reflects its necessity backwards to the beginning of time. For if the whole purpose of this enormous universe lies in the resurrection from the dead of the man-god Jesus in the first century, then the whole of the universe aims at this one single point. Not only was it intended from the beginning, but the whole of the universe was created for this single purpose. As a consequence, says the pope, “man” is not a chance occurrence. If he were
… merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature. But no. Reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine Reason.
So, science has simply got it wrong. The pope knows. From the very beginning, we were purposed, and, therefore, everything about us was purposed. Tsunamis and earthquakes, misery and heartache, disease, plague, cancers, aneurisms, brain damage, infections, birth deformities, children’s deaths: all is purposed from the very start. It is simply impossible to have determinate reason at the beginning, and not attribute all of these things to God. So all the suffering of the vast ages of evolutionary development was all purposed so that, in the end, we, just as we are, should be the product. And, notwithstanding all that we know about evolution, and the chance variations that happen to get selected by the environment, everything we see is the product of that original creative act, whether understood as happening at the beginning of time, or occurring as a constantly creative holding everything in being at each successive moment of time.
Easter is the great temptation of Christianity, the temptation to throw caution to the winds and make enormous claims for which there is not a shred of evidence, enormous claims which inevitably raise all the most thorny problems that religion poses to its adherents. How, in the face of all this suffering, which, as the pope said in his question and answer session with the laity, he cannot explain or understand, can people go on claiming, as they do, that life has been made new? We all know that this is not true. Even those who get up on their hind feet on Easter Sunday, know that it is not true, that life has not been renewed, that people still suffer agonisingly and die in misery, and will go on doing so.
Why the empty pretence that there is more than this, when the answer should be that there is at least this much? Instead of imagining glorious scenarios in some realm that transcends the world, let us try our best to live the lives we have with the greatest energy possible; let us minimise the amount of suffering in the world; and let us try our best, not to overpopulate the world as all the religions seem determined to do, but to encourage a reasonable rate of reproduction, and improvement in the standards of living and freedom for everyone who comes into life, while allowing those who are in the midst of horrible suffering to leave this life when they have had enough of life and choose to go, desiring to leave it to those who still have the ability to profit from it. Time to stop pretending that there is a new life to be found, even through suffering, and to accept life as something that can, indeed, be wondrous, but that can also be a torment and a misery. Time to dismiss the pretence of Easter and the promises that it makes. It is a form of bondage, not, as is so intemperately claimed Easter after Easter, a triumph of freedom and reason.