Every year I surprise myself at wanting to write about how significant this week is in the liturgical calendar. Five years since distancing myself from The Church, I still find an immense resonance in the narrative of the Passion of Christ. Our need to understand the myth of redemption, pitted against the struggles of our broken world, and the massive dramatic impact of the story continue to move me.
Last year, I used the ‘Fettenear Banner’ in the Museum of Scotland to reflect upon my reaction to Christ’s suffering. His heavily-flagellated flesh reminds me of the Isenheim alterpiece by Grünewald; the pliars tell the grim reality of the nails that pinned those crucified to whatever cross-shaped frame the Romans used. I spoke, in my poem, of the ‘spitting Jew’ – a gruesome depiction of how crowd-mentality can turn on someone and inflict inordinate suffering – often to assuage their own complicity or guilt.
These days we have tabloid journalists spitting vitriol; radio and television interviewers publicly humiliating people; and those who sit in judgement in our Law Courts applying the same demotic scourge that sells the papers, or, at least, makes headlines. There is, inevitably, hypocrisy within hierarchical Institutions. All public figures whether priests, poets or politicians, teachers, actors or musicians are ripe for a whipping, stoning, or shitting-on from high.
Yet who may throw the first stone? The 'one without sin' is what the Gospel tells us. Sticks and stones, spitting and hitting, slander and libel are all in the Bible, but I ask you: what right has a BBC journalist to call someone a ‘nasty piece of work’ – no matter what you think of the man in question?
We like to see the mighty fallen. Even the words ascribed to the Mother of Jesus sung at the Annunciation tell us how God has (or will?) “Put down the mighty from their seat.” (Luke, 1) This – and the complex issue of who, or what, is God – may be open to interpretation, but the popular expression ‘playing God’ has some weight. Who has the right to assume such a High Position? St Luke, again, reminds us: “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”
There is a beautiful prayer (I prefer to say ‘poem’) in Church of England liturgy which says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” We all fail, of course. It is part of our human condition. But it is how we attempt to make sense of this failure, whether through faith in God, interpretation of the Gospel story, or belief in ourselves that gives us strength to continue.
Tomorrow, on Holy Saturday, my monologue Malchus Hears will form part of an Easter Play, CrossWords, being performed in Princes Street Gardens. It is about Peter who, we are told, chopped off the ear of one of the servants, as Jesus was about to be arrested. In my ‘reading’ of this episode, Malchus hears the words of Thomas Traherne as they take Christ away.
I will not by the noise of bloody wars and the dethroning of kings
advance you to glory: but by the gentle ways of peace and love.
Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditation – I; 4.
Can we forgive ourselves? I hope so.
Could Peter? I think so.
Will ‘Society’ ever forgive? I doubt it.
And that is why this world remains broken, in spite of Christ’s suffering.