Coronavirus and The Cross – a meditation on Suffering this Easter

Posted: April 10, 2020 in Life, Religion
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Jesus

I do not write a lot on this blog about my religious beliefs.

For one thing, I find it faintly irritating when others do, because after most of a lifetime I think I know what I think, and I respect other people to know what they think, and I don’t think we should spend acres of time telling each other we’re wrong.

Then again, I am under the same command to share my faith like any Christian, and as I wait for the clock to tick over into Good Friday, especially when the world is in such pain as it is now, then tonight more so than ever I should not stay silent.

Many non-religious people – OK, I mean non-Christian people, specifically, as my knowledge of other religions is merely partial – say “Well, I can’t believe in God, because he lets such bad things happen. If he was a loving God, then how would he let …. [insert sad event here]?”

“Your imaginary friend must be a right shit,” as one friend put it to me.

This is an attitude with which I have great intellectual sympathy. It seems completely arse-backwards that God loves us, and yet awful things happen to us that he could wave his little finger at and prevent. Probably more Christians have left the faith over the centuries over the problem of Suffering – it deserves its own capital letter – than any other subject.

To understand this as Christians understand it – or for Christians who understand it poorly – we need to look at the very concept of life as it is understood by believers.

Every day at the moment we are being assailed by the tragic figures of those who sicken and die from Coronavirus. And the awful tales of them being wrenched from their family, unable to say goodbye, and the heartbreaking stories of how good they were as individuals. The story of the smiling, pretty 22 year old nurse who died in Essex affected me dreadfully.

To put this in any sort of context – to defend God, if you like, from his apparently uncaring gaze playing over such life events – we have to look at the fact – head on – that what we are experiencing here on Earth is not life. Not in and of itself, anyway. It is just half of life – less than half, actually – because Christians believe – and have believed for two thousand years – that when we die we go to our spiritual home. To God. To return to the source, The centre. To where we came from, and must return to.

Life as we know it is just a prelude, if you like, for real life.

One cannot be a Christian, no matter how much one is assailed by doubts (and I am as much as any other) if you do not believe this. It is the very essence of the faith – it is the POINT of the whole religion, if you like.

Now at this point, many atheists will turn away and declare, “Well, you can’t prove that, so the whole discussion is pointless.” And they’re right: no Christian CAN prove it – not ultimately. Not “court of law” style prove it. It’s a matter of belief. Usually arrived at through painful application and study, often over years or decades.

But to understand the world – to understand Suffering, from a Christian perspective – to understand why Christians believe as they do, you have to suspend that disbelief for a moment and face the plain truth that Christians believe that what happens here on Earth is only part of the story, and not, in reality, the most important part.  As someone once put it to me, “We are immortal beings, living a mortal life.”

In the context of this belief, the detail of the Good Friday story becomes utterly crucial.

Indeed, it is more important than anything else in the Bible.

For it is in Good Friday, and its twin, Easter Sunday, that we see both the innate tragedy of the world, and the promise of transcending that tragedy, laid out for all to see and understand, “if they have ears to hear”.

Jesus was an historic character. We know this. But whether the Bible is an accurate rendition of his life is endlessly up for debate. If the New Testament is a true re-telling of the events surrounding this remarkable man, then it reveals a great deal about why the world is as it is. And it specifically talks to us about Suffering.

Indeed, in my view you could remove all the New Testament, and leave just the story of Christ’s Passion and his Resurrection, and you would actually have 95% of what you need to know.

For Christians, Jesus Christ was not just the Son of God, he was also deeply, and one hundred per cent, human. Indeed, he was the only human who ever lived who epitomised how perfect a human life could be.

He felt raw human emotion and loss. “Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the Bible, and one of the most significant.

He was endlessly patient, endlessly gentle, endlessly kind, endlessly inspiring.

For Christians, he was the only human being untainted by wickedness.

He was also, though, a true human. He laughed. He enjoyed weddings. He had a temper when he saw people being led astray. Yet he hated no one. He hurt no one. Quite the opposite, in fact – he loved those who hurt him.

For a Christian, Jesus was sent by God to show us how we could be, if we just had the determination and the strength of will. And the faith.

Against that background, now contemplate what was done to him.

He was terrified. We know this. He knew what was coming. He knew the ordeal he would have to face. He begged God to find some other way for him to fulfil his purpose.

God said no. So did Jesus run? No. He could have, but he persisted. He was faithful.

So having committed no errors, hurt no-one, said and done nothing wicked, having simply worked to make life better for other people – and having left us the most powerful speeches about what it means to be human in the whole of human history – he was betrayed by one of his closest friends.

He was arrested by those who were terrified that he would tear them down from their position of power that they held onto merely to support their own egregious lifestyle. Having done nothing illegal, he was falsely accused of saying things he never had said, and turned over to the authorities for punishment. When they could find no fault in him, political pressure was brought to bear to ensure a conviction.

He was beaten to within an inch of his life – the skin literally flayed from his back – but even that didn’t satisfy those who feared his simple message.

He was mocked by those who had praised him just a few days earlier. The mob howled for his death.

nailsThen he was forced to carry a heavy wooden cross to a barren, high place, where he was nailed to it by his hands and feet while alive, and hung there to die the most appalling, slow, painful death imaginable.

What for? For saying “Love one another.”

When he didn’t die fast enough for those who we tired of the spectacle wanted to go home, he was speared in his side.

During this unimaginable ordeal, something very significant happened.

Despite forgiving those who are so mistreating him, and comforting one of those crucified with him, despite comforting his mother who was forced to watch this event, at a crucial moment his humanity came screaming from his very essence, from the core of his being, as he cried out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”.

Theologians have agonised about this phrase for centuries. It is the only saying that appears in more than one Gospel and is a quote from Psalm 22. This saying is taken by some as revealing an abandonment of the Son by the Father. Another interpretation holds that at the moment when Jesus took upon himself the sins of humanity, and the Father had to turn away from the Son because the Father is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13). Yet other theologians understand the cry as that of one who was truly human and who felt forsaken. Put to death by his foes, very largely deserted by his friends, he may have felt he was also deserted by God.

This latter is the interpretation I treasure. Because for me, the very essence of Christ’s sacrifice, and the true significance of Good Friday, is that it is in this very second that Christ is unshakeable and totally human. Sustained to at least some extent by his unique relationship with God until this moment, at this moment of extreme crisis, God leaves him to face the reality of pain and torture and suffering and death on his own. Without a direct line to God. Without any simple explanation. Without any promises. With no wave of the magic wand. At this moment – precisely this moment – Jesus, a perfect divine being, shares OUR fate, absolutely.

He feels what we feel, every day. And in this anguished cry, I think we can see that this final indignity, even for Jesus, was unexpected and frightening.

Jesus is human, and never more human than in this final crisis.

And still, and yet, does he give up? No: he persists with his life, his mission, to the very end.

As I write this, I reflect on the horrifying truth that the man being crucified by the Romans virtually suffocates to death, unable to sustain his body weight on his broken arms and legs, he slumps down, head and torso leaning forward. Jesus’s seven sayings on the cross would have been as he was gasping for air to sustain himself. Choking. A heaving chest with failing lungs. The tragic irony is obvious.

So for Christians, as we watch the terrible suffering around us this Good Friday, we need to believe – if we do – that Jesus has been there before us. He died a terrible, awful, painful and miserable death. He has left his friends and family behind, stricken in grief, frightened and confused. And yet, despite this suffering, he never actually gave up on God.

Just before he dies, Jesus cries out “It is finished!” Adam Hamilton writes: “These last words are seen as a cry of victory, not of dereliction. Jesus had now completed what he came to do. A plan was fulfilled; a salvation was made possible; a love shown. He had taken our place. He had demonstrated both humanity’s brokenness and God’s love. He had offered himself fully to God as a sacrifice on behalf of humanity. As he died, it was finished. With these words, the noblest person who ever walked the face of this planet, God in the flesh, breathed his last.” This verse has also been translated as “It is consummated.” “It is done.” You could even translate it, freely, as “That’s enough now.”

Then Jesus offers his soul to God, once more as so many times before, and dies. Hamilton has written that “When darkness seems to prevail in life, it takes faith even to talk to God, even if it is to complain to him. These last words of Jesus from the cross show his absolute trust in God: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit …” This has been termed a model of prayer for everyone when afraid, sick, or facing one’s own death. It says in effect: “I commit myself to you, O God. In my living and in my dying, in the good times and in the bad, whatever I am and have, I place in your hands, O God, for your safekeeping.”

CaptureIn a world afflicted with a modern plague, this is the deep and fundamental significance of Good Friday to all Christians.

This – what we see and experience around us, every day – is not the whole story.

We are eternal souls living a mortal life. And no matter how tragic or how scary or how desperate that mortal life is, we cling to the knowledge that after Good Friday comes, without fail, Easter Sunday.

And on Easter Sunday, life wins. The pain is forgotten. The loss is forgotten. The grief is forgotten.

Because we don’t die, when we die.

If you fear or grieve this Good Friday, I and my family hold you in our hearts, and pray for God’s peace for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments
  1. underwriiter505 says:

    Hello again – it’s been a while. Thank you for this heartfelt meditation.

    I like to make a loose analogy where the universe as we see it is run somewhat like a democracy, whereas the universe in which God prevented all suffering would be autocratic. Sure, things go smoothly in an autocracy. Trains run on time. Sure, people do bad things i a democracy Laws written to prevent people from doing bad things are enforced only after the fact, and often unfairly But in an autocratic universe, we would never be able to do anything of our own. If we were perpetually happy, would we even know what happiness is? My guess is that we wouldn’t, but there’s really no way to answer that – it’s unimaginable.

    A blessed Easter to you and yours.

    Like

    • Stephen Yolland says:

      Very wise words … I can’t think of anything more awful than a bland Universe where nothing goes wrong and there is nothing to strive for.

      Like

      • Geoff says:

        Thank you for this Stephen. Your homily captures the essence of the story without sermonising making it accessible for those with different beliefs. By being brave enough to share your insight you will hopefully give others who share your belief the strength to share their beliefs. For me, that is the call to action for us all.
        Perhaps Easter Saturday should be Reflection Saturday, where in a period of utter desolation when life as we knew it seems to have gone forever, we can reflect on why that should be. We know there will be a new beginning but we do not know what the new normal will be. But let us use the experience of the past to shape our new normal.
        ‘Great is the mystery of faith’.

        Like

        • Stephen Yolland says:

          Thank you Geoff, what very kind words …. I do like your idea of “Reflection Saturday”. I sometimes feel I am “holding my breath” waiting for Easter Sunday, waiting for the ordeal to be over. Reflecting on this reminds me of something my mother used to say: “Worrying never took away one minute from time, nor added one minute to it.” Sometimes the purpose is to endure until happier times reappear, as I am sure they will.

          Like

  2. Justin Pigneguy says:

    Bravo mate. Well written.

    Like

  3. Woody says:

    Hi Stephen Yolland. I’m an Atheist but I like you’re style in this post, not confrontational against unbelievers but just your view. Going back a while, I haunted some Atheist blogs, giving views, debating others, and as an Atheist/Skeptic, had seemingly read more of the bible than the very religious folk who chose to argue with me.
    With shield of logic protecting my heart and the gleaming blade of Occam’s razor held high, I charged into the fray. But despite the opposing views and reasoning and arguements that flooded into my mind as I read this post, i’m not tempted to tell you that I think you’re wrong or WHY I think you’re wrong about some things, because you didn’t seek to attack my views and I don’t have to have that kind of hostile digital relationship with a blogger who is simply, fairly and politely expressing himself. In the past I have strongly disagreed with more than one of your posts but I still enjoy receiving them and reading your views. I will only say that there’s something I don’t like about the idea of this mortal life from birth to death being only the tiny beginning of a much longer, eternal and immortal ‘life’ (no doubt being reunited with all of my dead ancestors, or whatever). It makes it sound as if this life I am living now is just something (a recipe of joy and love and loss and pain) which must be tolerated before I ascend into the heavens.
    Your loyal fan,

    Woody

    Like

    • Stephen Yolland says:

      Those are very kind words, Woody, and I am grateful for them.

      I think Underwriters comment is a very valid one from a Christian perspective. It is, in effect, that life with no challenges would be unutterably awful. It would be pointless, because it is in facing challenges, and over-coming them, that we can build a sense of self-worth and achievement. We are getting into some very deep theological areas here, but essentially if we had no free will to live our lives as we see fit then we would only have an existence as an automaton. God grants us the right to live our lives to an ideal of worthfulness: there are barriers along the way, but it is overcoming those barriers that gives life meaning. A life in ignorance of our own existence and no control over it would be no life at all. If you believe in Genesis (I do not) this was a life of eternal but bland happiness that God envisaged for us, but then we took a different path. Thereafter, throughout history, he has nudged (or driven) us towards a way of living which yields contentment WITHOUT perfection.

      “Tolerated” is not the way I would put it. I would say that God knows that in experiencing joy, love, loss and pain we bring ourselves closer to his unique and total knowledge of everything.

      I hope that makes sense, logically, even if you don’t believe it. And thank you again for the support.

      Like

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