Since moving to Toronto in 1987, I had spoken to my parents in London by phone every month or so. Calls were expensive back then so I was surprised when one day in early summer 2001 my mum suddenly telephoned. It was — well of course it was — bad news: Dad had had a bad stroke.
I flew over that night, got a train to the Essex suburb of my birth and upbringing, hugged mum then went to the hospital. There was dad, such a strong and tough man, suddenly a baby again. Vulnerable, immobile. Good, kind medics told us it was serious, weren’t sure what would happen, no positive signs yet.
We sat by his bed, chatted, didn’t know what to do. Then my sister came in, not knowing what to do either. Then my brother-in-law and niece, the same. Five of us, impotent and ignorant. Then a sixth person entered. My younger niece bounded in like Tigger, jumped on the bed, cuddled her grandpa and fell asleep.
Because that was what she did whenever she visited her grandparents’ house. Why would a strange place with odd sounds and smells be any different? And then — and then — dad showed emotion. For the first time in two days, he cried. He turned his head, eyes seemed to focus, and with super-human effort said a word. My name. Michael. Then again and again. We called for a doctor, who with pristine innocence said, “This wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s like a miracle.”
I should explain that my niece is what is known as handicapped, disabled, challenged. She’s profoundly autistic, which some people find extremely disturbing. The thing is, in a sense, that disability has liberated her: she loves unconditionally, and in that gift of unconditional love changed our world. My dad had a 90 per cent recovery from his stroke.
Does this constitute proof of God and Jesus and Easter? Of course not! I may be a Christian but I’m not a fool. As a priest, I see more death, suffering and fleshy, bloody reality in a week than most people do in a year. I’m many things but I’m not stupid and not naive. No, I tell this story to remind us what this time should be about: unconditional love.
The problem, of course, is that we live in the midst of clergy abuse scandals and fierce, crimson-red judgementalism. To be candid, it’s sometimes difficult to find the teachings of Jesus the revolutionary when they’re so well hidden behind his followers. But there they are, and made especially vivid at Easter. Forgive, embrace, include, empathise, judge yourself before others, give away property. Turn the world upside down because it’s systemically unfair, stand with those who need you the most, be with the lost.
You see, mine is the God of losers. As Freud said, if we all got what we deserved we’d get a good beating, and when I consider how I’ve sometimes behaved over the years I cringe in embarrassment and shame. Easter reminds us of the resurrection but also of humiliation and suffering. This isn’t triumphalism, and the divine quintessence of the Jesus narrative is paradox: in death is life, in giving is receiving, in sacrifice is completion.
I’m not going to argue the case for Christian belief. I’m privileged to have met many of the most sophisticated and informed Christians and atheists, and both types can make compelling arguments. Apologetics is often fruitless, and polemics just annoying. I prefer Gandhi’s reference. “Don’t talk about it. The rose doesn’t have to propagate its perfume. It just gives it forth, and people are drawn to it. Live it, and people will come to see the source of your power.”
What Christianity shouldn’t be, but far too often has become, is a moral thermometer. Consider, for example, the issue of sex, which has become an obsession among Christian conservatives. Jesus seems largely indifferent about the subject, and it’s significant that one of the readings in Lent, shortly before Easter week, presents a woman drying Jesus’ feet with her hair. It is erotic, perhaps, sensual and intimate for sure. Yet he accepts the action with praise and chastises the person who condemns it.
The only sin, if we wish to use that word, around sexuality is abuse and betrayal. To use another person merely for one’s own pleasure, without care or concern for them. Or in adultery, which is more about the heart than the body, and can shatter someone’s trust and self-worth. To reduce all of this to sex alone is simplistic and crass, but that’s what we see too often in Christian circles around so many subjects. We’ve found something else to present as a culprit, so let’s all feel good about ourselves as we march through the village and scream its name.
The Jesus of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday roared the opposite path: treat others as you would yourself be treated. To do otherwise is worse than base hypocrisy, it’s a rejection of the very Christian symbiosis, the call to gracious community that would make the Beatitudes (the sayings attributed to Jesus), liveable.
Jesus died alone and in agony. He owned no property, criticised the wealthy and powerful, gathered the rejected and marginalised around him, detested violence and selfishness, and exposed judgementalism for the fatal darkness it is. The God of losers, the God of change, the God of children in hospital wards who in their brokenness transform everything and everyone.
That’s my Christ, that’s my Easter. I believe he is risen. I believe he is risen indeed. But if we fail to listen to and fail to try to live by Jesus’ breathtakingly radical teachings, his words are made empty and his ministry becomes a failure. It’s not easy to live by Christ. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult. But if you want easy, try a chocolate egg. They’re plentiful at this time of year.