Tension had been mounting. The great festival of Passover was approaching, when Jews reaffirm their identity and commemorate the Lord God’s willingness to send the Angel of Death to enforce their freedom from Pharaoh. That year, fear and death were in the air once more. There had been trouble in the countryside. A young preacher was attracting large crowds. Now he was coming to Jerusalem. Many of his followers expected him to preach rebellion, to proclaim a new kingdom: perhaps, even, to threaten the Romans in the way that Moses had threatened the Egyptians.
They were in error. He had come to preach redemption, not rebellion. There was to be a kingdom, but not of this world. As for threats, a first-born would be slain: Him. Christ had not come to rule in Jerusalem. He had come to die in Jerusalem.
There is one problem with the New Testament accounts of Christ’s final hours. Palestine was a Roman province of considerable strategic importance, whose inhabitants could easily turn truculent. If the Roman authorities knew the Jewish scriptures, they would have been nodding in agreement whenever Jehovah referred to a proud and stiff-necked people. Yet the Gospels portray Pilate as a sensitive fellow with a Hamlet-like tendency for agonising and indecisiveness. That is entirely implausible. Rome would never have sent a wimp to such an important post.
The early history of Christianity is best understood as a sectarian conflict between Jews. In the Gospels, the Christian Jews are trying to appease the Romans by putting all the blame on their Jewish opponents. This is unconvincing. The Jewish hierarchy might have had Christ’s blood on their hands. So did Pilate.
From Hamlet, to Lear. The account of Christ’s last hours, from the garden of Gethsemane to His agonies on the Cross, is profoundly moving. He may be about to reign in Heaven. First, however, He has to die as a man; to endure the death march from the way of the Cross to the place of the skull – and His courage comes close to failing Him. He prays that the cup may pass from Him. That prayer goes unanswered. There is no intercession. Death from crucifixion was a hideous business: hence the word “excruciating.” My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken Me?’ In the midst of His human agonies, was Christ’s faith shaken? That would have been an understandable human reaction.
It would also have been shared by many of his followers. John eluded capture by wriggling out of his cloak and taking to his heels, naked. Peter lied. Flight, fear, betrayal: on the first Good Friday, that might have appeared to be the Gospel of common sense. To many of those who had been drawn to Christ, it must have seemed as if all hope had gone. Their leader, whom they revered, had suffered a horrible death: for what? God had abandoned the world.
That despair would have persisted throughout the final Sabbath of the Old Testament. The mood would have been penitential enough to satisfy the most austere Wee Free. When the Sabbath was over, and activity was permitted, some of the women from Christ’s entourage set off to minister to the broken body with spices and ointments. There was no body. The stone had moved. This Sunday, throughout Western Christendom, the faithful will proclaim that Christ is Risen, It is a glorious message, which calls for the B Minor Mass. In Jerusalem, on the first Easter Sunday, there was no triumphalism: only bewilderment. It took time for Christ’s followers to realise that their Leader had come into His Kingdom; that the Cross was not the end but the beginning.
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I am writing as a reverent unbeliever: almost I persuade myself to be a Christian: only almost. Although I have an immense respect for those who do believe, I cannot join them in the leap of faith. But I do know what faith would mean. To be a Christian, one would have to believe in the literal truth of the Gospels’ account: that Christ died on the Cross and was then resurrected.
There was a preening self-publicist called David Jenkins who was probably the silliest man ever to hold high office in the Church of England. Somehow he became Bishop of Durham. There has never been such a contrast between a Bishop and his Cathedral. This empurpled ass referred to the Resurrection as a “conjuring trick with bones.” As a churchman, he might have passed muster as a conjuror at a children’s party. Yet there are many other professed Christians who share that benighted Bishop’s scepticism, even though they would recoil from his blasphemy. They too find it impossible to believe in the literal truth of the resurrection.
Justin Welby, who was a proper Bishop of Durham before being translated to Canterbury, entirely disagrees. I have heard him say that if a box of bones was discovered in Jerusalem bearing the name Jesus Christ, he would be out of a job and a faith.
I can understand the irritation of professed Christians who do not see why a non-believer should presume to instruct them in their faith. But I am unrepentant. It is almost as if they were saying that it is too difficult for modern men to believe in miracles. Those inclined to think like that should read the Gospels, from Gethsemane to Golgotha. They might then conclude that Christianity was not meant to be easy. Even the Son of God found it hard.
Finally, a secular prayer for Easter. I devoutly hope that between now and Tuesday, no Christians will be murdered for proclaiming their faith. But I fear that this might be too much of a miracle.