The back of a donkey has a cross in its fur. It’s one of the rather lovely details that come to light at Easter when churches, including ours, hire a donkey for the day to tell the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Children (and adults) get excited at the sight of a donkey in the aisle and a little giddy with anticipation at what it might do, other than walk about. Larry, a donkey from Hackney City Farm, visited us this year (we share him with St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square) and our large palm fronds were waved enthusiastically by young and old alike, together with the palm crosses made by nuns and blessed for the season.
The mild but stormy winter has had memorably terrible effects in Somerset and Cornwall and this year, perhaps more than others, there is a sense of relief at the weak sun opening the buds on trees that makes even urban human beings, usually eyes down on the pavement, look up for a moment to stretch in the warmth.
Irritatingly, for those who like their work diaries predictable, the date of Easter changes each year according to the cycles of the moon. I have never been all that worried by the fact that the Christianisation of a pagan celebration has made Easter a hybrid festival. The shops are full of crosses marked on buns rather than donkeys, and with the current TV obsession with all things culinary, seasonal food is in, even for the irreligious. Eggs have both pagan and Christian resonance: for Christians, a symbol of the stone rolled away from the tomb and the power of newness and life in potential.
The power of potential life also finds expression in the presentation of management accounts – no, really – at this time of year. It’s AGM season for board directors and shareholders alike. Through the work of organisations such as Share Action and London Citizens, these AGMs can be more lively than they used to be. Groups from many different faiths are active in these kinds of activities as they continue to want to turn the tables on the moneychangers. Our church, as a registered charity, appoints accountants just like everyone else, and at the audit meeting someone generally asks whether we are a “going concern”.
This begs rather deep questions about measures of viability and indicators of success. I have long thought that the Church should have an independent quango dedicated to its regulation – perhaps Ofgod – which could swoop in at a moment’s notice to see if the hymns come up to scratch. More seriously, for us as an institution, as for individuals, our bank statements are moral as well as financial documents: what we actually spend our money on reveals our deepest priorities and hopes for the future. It is a bracing experience, as well as a legal requirement, to have them scrutinised.
In walking through the events of Holy Week, Christians confront the betrayal, arrest, torture and execution of Jesus of Nazareth, followed by the mysterious and seemingly seismic change in behaviour of his disciples when they encounter the impossible reality of resurrection.
Through this story of stories, Easter articulates both the catastrophe and the wonder of life in the world. Its colours and contours are far from the pale yellows and gentle, rolling mid-browns of the pastoral scenes in card shops. Easter combines the rawness of a man, stripped and flayed, with the kind of light that makes artists go to the moors at dawn, and which illuminates the gospel accounts of early morning in the garden with Mary Magdalene.
These paradoxes are part of everyday life: the other day, an anonymous prayer was left with us: “. . . for the man who was pulled out of the river in the park this morning . . . I wondered how this world could contain such beauty and simultaneously such misfortune?” The crosses, symbols of the violence of which people are capable, mingle, as they did on the first Good Friday, with the crowds and the celebrating, the buying and the selling, the bargaining of a busy marketplace.
Used over the centuries, sometimes to terrible effect, held aloft at the head of armies, forcing other faiths into submission, the cross is at its most liberating when released from its exploitation as a tool for partisan domination. Its meaning and power lie in its remaining an evocative silhouette from which we instinctively turn away. In recent years advertisers have confronted this same instinct in the ubiquitous posters showing dead teenagers lying in the road who “heard the track but didn’t hear the van”. The posters for Cancer Research are equally hard to face, as the eyes of the woman in front of us say: “It’s too late to save me but you can save yourself.” In the strong shape of the cross, calamitous human suffering is expressed and exposed at exactly the same time as new life is bursting out all around us.
A former dean of St Paul’s Cathedral commented in a newspaper column in the 1950s that people should not imagine they are thinking when they are “simply rearranging their prejudices”. Easter is a moment for nothing less than the reimagining of life. God dies. God lives; the forces of death are overwhelmed by glistening, shimmering, irreducible hope.
At dawn on Easter morning, Christians will gather in the chilly streets, and we will do so here in Piccadilly, to experience something of this reimagining for ourselves. We will light a fire, sing ancient songs, share food, remember that we live in the light of eternity and that things do not have to, and will not – despite our best efforts – stay as they are.
For details of Holy Week at St James’s Piccadilly, London W1, visit: sjp.org.uk