A slightly different blog, re-using my article in the ‘Faith and Race’ section of the April edition of The Voice, and focussing on the Easter events. May it be a season of renewed and deepened faith in Jesus for each of us.
The next blog will come out on Tuesday evening, 6th April, and thereafter on Tuesday evenings.
Covid and Crucifixion
What is your earliest ‘Covid memory’? For me, it was being in the pub watching Liverpool’s tragic defeat by Atletico Madrid in the European Champions League when my son phoned to say that Covid infections were now growing so fast that I should keep indoors. Like many other people at the time I didn’t think it was that serious. Donald Trump told Americans that it would be all over by Easter. Now we face a second Easter with restrictions still in place.
Covid has brought widespread pain. Economic hardship, sickness, bereavement, death have brought a level of sorrow unknown for several decades. Similar pain was revealed in the highly controversial Oprah interview of Meghan and Harry. But those of us who don’t inhabit their high-level wealth, status and publicity altitude still experience the same realities – the hurt of broken family relationships, emotional stress, overwhelming demands, racism. At whatever level of life we live, pain is part of our experience. In Genesis chapter 3 we read that through disobedience to God the lot of all humans is broken relationships between men and women, struggle in work, pain in childbirth.
What is your earliest ‘Crucifixion memory’? Mine is quite clear. When I was about seven the Radio Times front cover was of three men hanging from crosses. I have always been quite squeamish, and didn’t come from a particularly religious family, so the picture shocked and horrified me. I would turn it over or cover it with a cushion so as not to see it. I think it is that turning away from pain that makes many people treat Good Friday as a holiday and ignore thinking about Jesus’ suffering.
On the other hand people whose history is raw with suffering turn to it readily. That is why it is marked so much more in the Caribbean – wearing dark clothes, not carrying money, being sombre. The suffering of Jesus gives dignity to the experience of all who have suffered. Crucifixion was like lynching – not just a way of killing someone, but done with excessive brutality and cruelty in order to terrorise and suppress people. It is sickening to read details of the gratuitous and sadistic detail of many lynchings. So too, crucifixions were also carried out with the deliberate intention of maximising intense, long drawn-out physical and mental agony. Appropriately, one of the classic studies of American slavery was entitled ‘Time on the Cross’.
Perhaps this year when many people have suffered greater pressures on their families and relationships, their financial and mental well-being, spending time identifying with the suffering of Jesus will have greater resonance. On Good Friday we do well not to walk by on the other side but to focus thought and prayer on those for whom the past year has been particularly grief or anxiety stricken; and possibly to share with Jesus our own sufferings
But the story of Jesus doesn’t finish with his suffering on the Cross. ‘It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming’ is the well-known preacher’s claim. Whilst some churches display crucifixes portraying the physical agony of Jesus, others focus on simple crosses. The body of Jesus is no longer there, just as the great triumph cry of the Christian faith is the angel’s words to the women at the tomb on the Sunday morning: “He is not here; he has risen”. In some ways I don’t like the crosses we often see today – they are too clean, geometric, abstract. They turn our minds away from the reality of Jesus’s intense physical suffering. But in another way they point us to something very important: Jesus’ death was not the end but the beginning. The sin that caused his death was not victorious but overcome and defeated by his faithfulness. His resurrection shows that it is God who has the ultimate authority, not the power of lies and brutality, hatred and prejudice. These evils are still with us, but they can never have the last word. That word is always that “Jesus is Lord’. We can see that now in the ways in which injustice, poverty, racism and evil are being overcome. (If you don’t believe me, consider what life was like for the ordinary person two thousand years ago).
That’s why in the midst of suffering the Christian faith gives us hope. That doesn’t obliterate suffering. Covid will always leave scars in people’s hearts and bodies, on the national economy and our private finances. Family rifts are sometimes never healed by reconciliation. People carry the wounds of racism or exclusion. But the resurrection of Jesus calls us to the hope that in the end our good God will be victorious. That energises us to work for his kingdom to come in this life, and gives us the confidence to trust ourselves to God until finally he has overcome the power of evil, sin and death.
The great heroes of black history have been people of hope – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. For King that hope was fuelled by his Christian faith; for Mandela simply by the warmth and vigour of his humanity. But for both it was hope, not revenge or anger or desire to settle the score, that drove them forward. If Good Friday is a time to bring our pain and grief, and our shame and repentance to God, so Easter Sunday is a time to rest our spirits in the confidence of God’s final victory through Jesus, and to be re-energised to face and overcome the sorrow and evil of our world. We hold on to one of the last sayings of the risen Jesus: ‘Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’.