Three Hours Devotion - Holy Week Addresses 1975
Good Friday: No 1
To Christians, the death of Christ was the crisis of history, the turning point of time. Everything that preceded it came to a point on Calvary – a focus – and in that focus the whole of history was seen to be leading up to this moment. Types and shadows had their ending in Christianity. With his death and passion a new age arrived. Time and history since then have spread out from the font of the cross like the waters of a river flowing from their source. Nothing has been the same; for in his passion, the realm of God – the nature of ultimate reality – broke into the realm of man’s daily life, and stood revealed for all with eyes to see. Both God’s nature and man’s nature were laid bare. We can unlock the mystery of our lives with a key given to us in his death. The smallest incidents in the drama of that day are loaded, significant, transparent to some deeper meaning. Scripture was fulfilled; images from the past disclosed their true import; the world’s standards, values, and judgements were turned radially upside down by God’s standards, values, and judgements; and while men acted freely – sinning, jeering, beating, laughing, gambling, crucifying – justifying themselves as they did so, and yet judging themselves to be what they were by what they did, God over-ruled. The providence of God mopped up the sin of man as a sponge mops up a pool of water: took up the brutality of man, and turned it to his own account. Providence and freedom over-lapped, and met in Jesus. He knew the will of God, and chose to obey it. He knew the sin of man, and chose to bear its consequences. As a result he died and men lived.
To the world – or anyway to an increasing number of people in it – this is unacceptable. It involves looking at things in a way which many people believe to be false; a way which they have long ago given up. The Nobel prize-winning French molecular biologist, Professor Jaques Monod has put the new point of view well. “Recent discoveries about basic organic matter demonstrate”, he has written, “that all forms of life are the product of pure chance….These discoveries make it impossible to accept any system, religious or materialist, that assumes a master plan of creation…Man at last knows that he is alone in the indifferent immensity of the universe, whence he has emerged by chance. His duty, like his fate, is written nowhere….There is no intention in the universe……Man as any other animal species is a pure accident….He might just as well not have appeared”.
You could not have a point of view more directly opposed to Christian belief than that. It is much more directly opposed to Christianity than the old, anti-Christian humanism of the nineteenth century and the beginning of our own with its almost mystical belief in the doctrine of progress and its enormous faith in man himself. It is much more directly opposed to Christianity, too, than in man himself. It is much more directly opposed to Christianity, too, than Marxism which, as a materialist system which believes in a master plan of creation leading up to the ultimate victory of the proletariat and the millennium of the classless society, is condemned together with Christianity by Monod’s materialism. Both these rivals of Christianity held out hope. Monod holds out none. Macbeth was right and “life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
At least, this clarifies the issue. With ever fewer people being able to invest much hope in man himself after the wars and concentration camps and reversions to barbarism of this our blood-soaked century; and with even fewer still being able to pin their faith to the Marxist bandwagon after the purges of the thirties, the crushing of Czechoslovakia, and the treatment of the Solzhenitsins of this life, the relevance of some sort of religious belief and hope to people’s lives is abundantly and increasingly obvious as the enormous and, even as short a time as 25 years ago wholly unpredictable increase in the interest of young people in religion demonstrates only too clearly.
For it is very doubtful whether people can live for long without hope. The fact that man does not live by bread alone has graduated in our bread-abundant but hope-starved society from a pious opinion to a datum of psychology and sociology. Hope comes in two shapes and sizes: personal hope and transpersonal hope, and the personal hope, thank God, still informs people’s lives in all sorts of ways: hope of passing their finals, hope of being married and raising a family, hope of success, hope of going to Majorca next summer, or even hope that their poor old legs won’t play them up so badly this winter as they did last. This kind of personal hope is the stuff of living. Without it, we die; a fact noted by the Austrian psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, when, as a Jew, he was forced to spend three years during the war in Belsen and Buchenwald successively. In order to retain his sanity, he used his time to study the effects on people of extreme adversity; and one of the things he noticed was that, when one of the prisoners became totally bereft of hope, he simply died. This often happened when a man’s hope was limited to personal hope, for under concentration camp conditions sooner or later - and usually it was sooner than later - personal hope evaporated. The people who survived best were the Communists, the dedicated Christians (both Catholics and Protestants, - Ireland please note - ) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses: the men, in fact, whose hopes were pinned to a belief or a community greater than themselves which gave their lives a purpose and a meaning greater than anything they could claim as individuals: a purpose and a meaning which transcended their personal plight in the camp,. and which would transcend their personal deaths if they died there, because it was vested in something greater than themselves. It is this kind of hope which I have called transpersonal hope, and it is this kind of hope which is absent from the lives of most people today. The results are unmistakable.
“A psychiatrist today”, a member of that profession wrote in 1970, “is confronted more and more with a new type of patient, a new class of neurosis, and a new sort of suffering, the most remarkable characteristic of which is the fact that it does not represent a disease in the proper sense of the term”. The condition of this new type of patient is due to “the experience of a total lack or loss of an ultimate meaning to his existence that would make life worthwhile. The consequent void, the state of inner emptiness, is at present one of the major challenges to psychiatry….What threatens contemporary mankind is the alleged meaninglessness of his life…the ….vacuum within him”.
I don’t think many people would want to argue with that. The biggest single problem facing people in our society - our post-Christian, post-humanist, post-Marxist, post-everything society - is how to make some sort of sense of their existence, and where to find something which holds out some sort of hope for themselves and for their world. But where can they search for it? In Christ we tell them. Yes, indeed. But what does that mean ? Christ is no longer in any obvious sense walking around today. He is dead, men will tell us; and instead of being shocked or disapproving, we might do better to take them seriously and remember their precise question. For usually people do not ask us where to find Christ, but where to find some sort of hope and meaning for their lives. We say, “In Christ”. They say, “He’s dead”. But put the two together, and answer their original question by saying, “In the death of Christ”, and perhaps we have found not only the right answer but also one they will listen to. Perhaps, I say “perhaps” because we have covered the phrase, “the death of Christ”, with such a thin layer of religious icing-sugar that it has been rendered almost innocuous. “Give the dharlin’ Lord a kiss”, said a middle-aged Irish woman lifting her five-year-old daughter up to a hideously sentimental crucifix for the child to press her lips on the wood for my benefit. She worked as a daily for us in London for a bit. But it was no “dharlin’ Lord” who died on Calvary: no kissable figure rolling great soppy wooden eyes appealingly up to heaven. It was a murdered Jew in his death throes: a figure of black horror, of repulsive violence, of bestial squalor - bloody, desperate, and obscene: something to be banned from our television screens, to be ruthlessly hidden from the eyes of children.
Now start again. Are we really to say to our apathetic and bewildered fellow-men, “If you want to find hope and peace, you’ll find these things in that horror-comic figure in all its sickening blood and wreak of violence”? Yes, that is precisely what we must say to them, if we are to be faithful to the gospel; for its heart - the heart of the gospel - is that “we preach Christ crucified”: not gentle Jesus meek and mild: not “our dharlin’ Lord”: but an offensive abomination in a welter of blood, dead: a stumbling block to some and folly to others, but to those who are called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Remembering that Christ himself said that in so much as what we did to the least of his brethren, we did to him, perhaps I may fly off at an apparent tangent, in the hope that in the end it will prove less tangential than it seems. In 1940, I was a very junior officer in the army, stationed in Plymouth. One night the place was bombed, and I was ordered to take my platoon of innocents down to the scene of the bombing, and there to help clear it up. We shovelled away at the rubble of a brick railway bridge, where the main line to London had crossed a road, and under the rubble we dug out the body of an old man who had taken shelter under the bridge, silly old thing - of all the places to hide, bang on target! The first we saw of him as we cleared the bricks laboriously away was a pink bald head with a few smears of blood on it. It was still warm to the touch. When we had dug him out, we carried him to a nearby school-room which had been hastily pressed into service as a morgue, and there we laid him down amongst a number of other corpses. Poor old what-not, I thought to myself, poor old what-not. But against the wall of the school-room three figures were sitting close to each other - indeed, touching - which I have never forgotten: a young mother flanked on either side by her two children, two little girls, aged about five and six. There were quite dead. They were also stark naked and apparently undamaged: just very pale, still, and dead. The blast of a bomb had stripped them and killed them without leaving a mark on them; blast sometimes played such tricks. I was an atheist in those days - a strict atheist - but those three alabaster corpses did not fit in to my neat and tidy atheism. I could not write them off as mere nothings, mere biochemical accidents of the chancy physics of a speck of planetary matter near a meaningless star in Professor Monod’s meaningless universe, whose deaths didn’t matter tuppence; for plainly this was nonsense. Their deaths did matter. They cried to high heaven. Yet this was nonsense if my atheism was right; so the citadel of my unbelief was assaulted by the death of that young woman and her children; by their casual and callous murder. I tried to forget them; stuffed the memory of them down into the darkest recesses of my mind’s subterranean geography, and refused to face the challenge they posed to my anti-goddery
But, alas for my escapism, for during the next five years my life was littered with corpses. Some I remember; many I have forgotten. I remember an Italian airman who baled out over the desert. His parachute failed to open, and he hit the ground not far from me, making a shallow, blood-soaked hole in the rocky surface of Libya. I remember, too, passing a bunch of knocked out British tanks in the middle of nowhere, the debris of some little skirmish, and going from one to the other to see which could be salvaged. I dropped down the turret into one of them to be confronted by a young soldier who had been dead for weeks. he was quite dry, mummified by the desert wind and silted up on one side with the yellow dust of Africa, sitting there staring at me. I mustn’t bore you, though I could go on and on. For at that time in my life, unlike Shakespeare, when to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, what I remembered was not so much my dear time’s waste - though that too - but the six million Jews who were exterminated in the camps, the obscene films of the Warsaw ghetto, the piles of wasted bodied in Buchenwald, the terrible things dug up in the forest of Katyn. Until, eventually, I could no longer ignore the assault made upon me by the dead; they would not be silenced, and the question they posed became too insistent to be repressed. “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,” T.S. Eliot asked in his poem, The Burial of the Dead, “has it began to sprout? Will it bloom this year? There came a year when all my corpses sprouted and bloomed in the garden of my mind confronting me with the question, “What do you think of us? Are we nothing to you who pass by?” It was a terrible question, for I knew that behind it lay another, cowering in the shadows: “What do you think of us? Are we nothing to you who pass by?” It was a terrible question, for I knew that behind it lay another, cowering in the shadows: “What do you think of yourself, my boy, what do you think of yourself?” If I wrote off the dead as mere nothings: biochemical accidents of Monod’s meaningless universe, as I knew I must if there was no God, then I should have to write off myself as meaningless too: would have to conclude that life really was a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Macbeth had been right. Christ, the Buddha, Mahommed, the mystics, the saints, Shakespeare,Bach, Rembrandt, the visionaries, the lovers, the whole idiotic human race had been deluded and wrong. Only I - neat little me - only I and Macbeth had been right; though it didn’t matter whether I had been right or wrong, for everything was nonsense anyway, including me and the bubble of my life.
Now, this conclusion I simply could not take; not because it was unwelcome, but because it made no sense of life, of love, of heroism, of vision, of hope, of art, of anything. Confronted by the clamour of my corpses, I could not say they didn’t matter. Instead, rather like the centurion who, confronted by the dead Christ, was forced to cry out, “Truly, this was a son of God,” confronted by the dead I had known - so many, many dead - I too had to cry, “Truly, these were children of a mystery: some of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans which is the source of life itself; images of whatever men may mean by God.” I discovered what life was truly about, when I faced the reality of death. I began to explore the depth of life’s richness, when I stopped running away, and faced the absolute dereliction of dying. I began to understand my own meaning and destiny, when I stopped refusing to be confronted by six million brutally murdered Jews. Remembering that Christ was a murdered Jew; and once again remembering his words that whatever we do to the least human being, we do to him, these random thoughts about the dead and about Christ crucified are perhaps not inappropriate to Good Friday.