I wasn’t raised a Christian, and knew little about the religion outside of school assemblies with traditional hymns, and obligatory films about Jesus over Christmas when I’d rather be watching The Great Escape. So Easter, the day on which Christ was resurrected, did not hold any meaning for me.
And then during Easter 1973, as a 14-year-old, I had my first encounter with death.
Teenagers are immortal, and rightly so. Which meant than when a dear schoolfriend was hit by a car and killed I had no idea how to react and what to feel. The funeral seemed so foreign, like a sickening interruption in my emotional diary. Sorrow, fear, or just profound confusion?
As I was leaving the cemetery, I found myself walking alongside the Anglican priest who’d taken the ceremony. He saw my obvious discomfort, and asked if I was OK. I replied with a teenage mumble. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I won’t try to convert you. Here to chat if you need to. But never think you’re on your own. If my faith tells me anything, it’s that. We’re in this together.”
Not profound, perhaps even banal, and I certainly didn’t consciously reflect on what he said. Yet I don’t think I ever forgot it either. I later found out that the young cleric was a noted scholar. He could have given me all sorts of theology and philosophy, little of which I would have understood. But that’s not, I think, why he chose not to. He said what he did because it had a pristine and fierce wisdom.
[See also: Matthew Goodwin is going native]
Mine is a late vocation and I’ve been a priest for less than four years. But in that time, I myself have taken 24 funerals, some involving the most biting tragedy. I’ve also seen pain and suffering more times that I can count, and behind most of it is invariably the same sting. Loneliness.
Just like that priest I won’t provide arguments for the historical reality of the first century Jewish subversive teacher Yeshua, or for the veracity of the Christian narrative. In my experience, witness is preferable to apologetics. What I will say is that community, human solidarity, has seldom been more important, necessary or as scarce. The cult of the individual holds unelected office. It infects our politics, media, even psyche. Racial inequality still punches away, new generations can’t depend on long-term employment or owning a home (or even affordable rent) and we feel monitored as potential purchasers or even criminals rather than respected as unique and precious individuals.
Most religions present an antidote, as do some secular alternatives. But I’m here as a Christian, as a priest, and at Easter.
So, if I believe anything it’s in a seamless garment, a sacred thread of continuity, from a man who preached love, justice and peace down to a cynical, fractured, angry world centuries later. The Gospels are as proudly socialistic as any political text; they’re less about an afterlife than a lived life, where we’re told to follow a code of which the epicentre is a form of holy selflessness.
Love God, love your neighbour. If you reject the former, that’s up to you. But Easter or otherwise, try to follow the latter teaching. Roll away that stone, for all our sakes.