EASTER AND MODERNITY
Donald Reeves says the Churches
are not exempt from the need for Christ's forgiveness
SOME YEARS ago a religious affairs cor- respondent for the Guardian had difficulty in getting religion taken seriously because his editor thought Christianity was an irra- tional and absurd illusion. 'How', he would ask, 'can any reasonably intelligent person believe that a man was raised from the dead, and then create a religion around him?'
The question fits easily into the 19th century, when scientific determinism and historical positivism were at times fashion- able ideologies. Then it was easy to reject some events out of hand because they could not have happened. Today, modern physics and historical studies are less dog- matic, or more agnostic. Moreover, as our knowledge about the human psyche and the soul develops, it is becoming more diffi- cult to dismiss the appearances of the Risen Christ in the Gospels as mere fantasy.
A more cautious approach to the Easter story is therefore appropriate. A close reading of St Paul and the Gospels reveals that no one observed the Resurrection. Therefore it is impossible to describe it. What is possible to observe is the behaviour of the disciples. Their experi- ence is the secret to the understanding of Easter.
The death of Jesus signalled the com- plete collapse of his ministry; everything he had said and done was discredited. The disciples fled, except for his mother and a few women and one unnamed male disci- ple. Christian tradition naturally reveres the disciples of Jesus, but the Gospels pre- sent them before the Resurrection as often foolish, with little or no religious insight.
Yet after the Resurrection they suddenly began to act as men transformed. They did not decide to change themselves; they did not come to some carefully worked-out conclusion that the ideas of Jesus were so significant that they could affirm he was alive. It was not a matter of resolve, but of being empowered, transformed, changed. The tradition of the Empty Tomb, the meaning of the Gospel appearances, the sort of 'spiritual body' the Risen Christ assumed — these contentious matters pale beside the empowerment of the disciples.
Two thousand years later it is difficult to come to terms with this mystery of the change wrought in the disciples which sig- nalled the birth of the Church, because we pride ourselves on our achievements, our capacity for planning, managing time our autonomy. Easter faith does not depend on belief in the Empty Tomb or acquiescing in the veracity of experiences which happened to a few people in the dis- tant past, but on recognising now the same spirit of the Risen Christ in the living.
If this reality of Easter is discovered, then our celebrations are profoundly unsettling for the Church. The Easter message cannot just be rehearsed and con- tained in liturgy, however beautiful and splendid, or proclaimed in the vaguest of generalisations, that death has been over- come, or that light is triumphing over darkness. Easter is an invitation to yield to that same power which transformed the lives of those hesitant, frightened disciples and which enabled them to live out of the spirit of Christ.
That spirit will not always appear as it did then. To those who lived in the Jewish religion, Christ was perceived as the Mes- siah, or for the Greeks the Logos. For our day, that spirit is discovered in the teach- ings and actions of Jesus about the King- dom of God — a vision of the world in which everyone and everything flourishes. Thus emerges a passion for justice and a longing for reconciliation. The working out of these generalities is costly, and involves hard choices. At the heart of it all is the forgiveness and acceptance which Christ offered and which was one of the strongest memories of the first Christians.
Organised religion finds such a glorious vision difficult to embrace. We establish our creeds, rules, barriers and boundaries. We find it easier to exclude and blame than to accept and welcome those who do not fit.
It is the Churches' task to provide abso- lution and mediate Christ's forgiveness. But for this to be more than a liturgical for- mula means we must become deeply self- critical — aware of our own need for forgiveness for the way the Churches have abused and oppressed others. This list is long and familiar. We have ignored women, exploited black people, harassed gay people, colluded with the worst forms of imperialism, proclaimed our superiority to other religions, and practised anti- Semitism. The implications for Christian communities are difficult: the failure of a priest who has taken advantage of his posi- tion to abuse children is not just his failure alone but that of the entire community. And within our own communities the prej- udices we hold about other denominations have led and still lead us, in the name of God, to perpetrate injustice and often to violence and death.
Moreover, if the Churches comment on secular matters, then as public bodies we must be prepared to put our house in order. Thus in 1997, the Roman Catholic Church's report, 'Common Good', was wel- comed by politicians, the business world and the media. But it was also pointed out that its own practices of employment were wanting.
Public penitence by the Churches is almost beyond our imagination. We had some sense of public grieving at the Princess of Wales's funeral, but public penitence is another matter. Yet the lethargy and hesitancy which a large part of the Churches is showing at the prospect of the Christian aspect of the Millennium celebrations is some sort of recognition that before celebration there has to be contrition, before resurrection, repen- tance. We need to make a restored com- mitment to the Beatitudes and the Magnificat, which are the charters of our Christian faith, and we must resist, as some Christians do, the temptation to spiritualise them because we find their reality disturbing and discomforting.
Cardinal Hume and the Archbishop of Canterbury have given their names to an evangelical group, Fanfare for a New Gen- eration, which aims to double congrega- tions for the Millennium. But this initiative will not engage the imagination of the Churches unless our own need for forgive- ness has been expressed and offered. Were that to happen, then the unsettling power of Easter with its new possibilities, new ges- tures, new risks, new life, will be unloosed. Happy Easter.
Donald Reeves is the Rector of St James's, Piccadilly.