Christopher Smith finds himself in a melancholy mood this Easter
Easter is upon us, and we have busied ourselves with the Holy Week liturgies and done our best to engage with the journey from the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, through the Last Supper and on to the cross, then to that first Easter Day, and the discovery of the empty tomb. The triumph of life over death is indeed something to be celebrated, and we celebrated it here at St Alban’s with the customary paraphernalia, including an orchestra, which boomed around the fat acoustic of our church building with ear-splitting intensity.
But there has been a slight layer of melancholy over our celebrations this year. On Tuesday of Holy Week, which is the day on which Bishops of Fulham have for many years celebrated our Chrism Mass, I got in from the parish evening mass to the news of the fire that nearly destroyed the cathedral church of Paris. You and I may never learn how that fire started, but I imagine someone knows, even now. I found myself wondering where the clergy of the Diocese of Paris would meet with their Archbishop for their Chrism Mass, and the answer came the following day: St Sulpice, which itself was subject to an arson attack in March. The Reuters news agency led its report on that fire thus: ‘Paris’s historic Saint-Sulpice church, which was used in the filming of US author Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code bestseller, briefly caught fire on Sunday.’ If ever a sentence spoke of the cultural shallowness of our age, that must surely be it.
Indeed, coverage of the Notre-Dame fire was pretty cringeworthy too, to say nothing of the particularly unpleasant ‘Twittists’ who seemed to think this was payback for French colonialism, and therefore something to celebrate. Two wrongs, in their view, evidently do make a right. And from another quarter there was speculation that a positive outcome of the destruction might be a reawakening of some of France’s ‘Zombie Catholics,’ the Catholics-in-name-only who rarely if ever go to mass, a phenomenon we are hardly unfamiliar with in the Church of England. And their president has been trying to get in on the act, having told the French bishops that ‘the link between church and state has been damaged, that the time has come for us, both you and me, to mend it,’ and that ‘a president of the French republic who takes no interest in the church and its Catholics would be failing in his duty.’
Now if I were a French bishop, I might be tempted to suggest that since it was the state which broke the relationship with the church in 1789 and persecuted its clergy and appropriated its property, it might be incumbent on the state to begin the process of mending it. Still, it will be interesting to see if anything comes of this little overture, or whether this is yet another cynical attempt by yet another cynical politician to court a particular group within society in order to win some votes. Notre-Dame has already survived the humiliation of being turned into a revolutionary ‘Temple of Reason’ with the words ‘A La Philosophie’ carved above the west doors, and the altar of God replaced by an ‘altar of liberty.’ The state giveth; the state taketh away.
And of course, my melancholy mood this year was deepened by the news we awoke to on Easter Day. 300 dead and 500 injured in Sri Lanka. I marvel at the puzzled reporters scratching their heads, wondering what it was all about. Welcome to the world of the persecuted church. These were not ‘acts of violence against churches and hotels,’ as the Prime Minister said. These were murderous attacks on Christians celebrating the Resurrection in church, and visitors presumed to be Christians in their hotels. What was so threatening about them? What is so threatening about the symbol of the Christians that it must be broken, and its worshippers destroyed?
As a symbol, the cross has scandalized, shocked and even frightened people almost since the beginning, especially those who have reckoned followers of the crucified to be a threat to their authority, a threat to their power. Why? The answer is simply stated in words of one syllable: ‘The Word was God’; ‘The Word was made flesh’; ‘God so loved the world that he gave his Son.’ And the simple doctrine of the love of God is too much for so many to hear. That simplicity should always be borne in mind when we are trying to understand the theology of the cross, the doctrine we call the atonement. That bit of Christian doctrine is complex, but the key to it is simple: God so loved the world that he gave his Son.
The names of the suicide bombers are coming out, and it will test our faith to try to pray for them as well as for the victims. Zahran Hashim, Abu Mohammad, Mohamed Azzam Mohamed. Try it. Offer them the other cheek also. Because ultimately, the love of God will win. The only-begotten Son of the Father, the Word of God made flesh, who had already redeemed humanity by taking it to himself ‘not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God’, has lived for us and he has died for us. ‘What man could not do for himself God has come to do for him.’ And maybe that’s the most disconcerting thing of all, if you are locked into a theological or philosophical system by fear: ultimately, love will win.
‘Actions speak louder than words’ is a cliché never truer than in the redemption of the human race. God did not choose to save the world by talking about it; he loved the world so much that he gave his only son. Alleluia.