Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why I love Easter more than Christmas... and it's got NOTHING to do with bunnies and chocolate eggs

Quentin Letts reports on a British Easter below.  An account of my limited observance  of the occasion under a blue Australian sky can be found here. -- JR

Good Friday is the most contradictory of national holidays. It is quite unlike Christmas. Far preferable, I reckon.

The banking system comes to a halt — and not just in Cyprus. Offices have closed until Tuesday.

Tradesmen kick on to double-time tariffs. Public transport switches to ‘weekend timetables’ (often a euphemism for simply giving up the ghost, to use an expression from the Bible’s account of Good Friday).

There is enough of a close-down to make the Easter weekend feel distinctive. At the same time, supermarkets will be open from dawn to midnight, their aisles crammed with beady-eyed shoppers.

Have we bought the Easter eggs? Have we got mint sauce for Sunday’s lamb? We forgot the daffodils for Granny! Instant U-turn and back to the shops we go.

There is a full list of sporting fixtures. Hotels are in high season. Garden centres and DIY stores brace themselves for a rush. Easter is not just the start of the Church year — it is also the beginning of the season for green fingers and bruised thumbs. With all that DIY going on, hospital casualty departments will be busy.

All this occurs on the most mysterious, mournful day in the Church calendar. What a satisfying paradox this Easter weekend is.

It starts with a day whose very name can perplex. ‘Good Friday’ marks Jesus’s crucifixion. Why should a day marking a painful death be ‘good’?

The origins of the name are uncertain. It may be a corruption of ‘God Friday’ or it may be that it was called good because the Crucifixion led to the Resurrection. The Germans call today ‘Karfreitag’ — the Friday of Suffering. Perhaps that is an example of Teutonic pessimism.

Good Friday has its rituals. These nowadays include queuing for a parking space at shopping centres such as Gateshead’s MetroCentre and Dartford’s Bluewater. But there are other, more elevated traditions, and without them Easter would lose something.

From Canterbury to Jerusalem, millions will fast while others will eat only fish. In Ross on Wye’s marketplace yesterday, I bought some fine-looking coley. It was only 8am but the fishmonger was doing brisk business.

Good Friday laments will be intoned across the Christian world. Empty coffins will be borne through city streets, flowers hurled at them by wailing believers. Easter may be a ‘festival’, but it is preceded by this most grief-stricken of days.

In England, altars are stripped, vicars wear black and candles are removed. Yet if you enter a church on Sunday it will be a riot of flowers — Hereford cathedral, for instance, becomes filled by the intoxicating scent of lilies. It may set off Mrs Letts’s hay fever, but this contrast, the sudden switch from winter to spring, darkness to hope, is integral to the Easter idea.

Before we can crack open those chocolate bunnies and Easter cakes — are you a simnel fanatic or a fruit and almond fan? — we have to earn it. Some churches hold long religious services called ‘The Three Hour Agony’.

The agony is officially that of Jesus on the Cross, yet as a boy in Gloucestershire I would contemplate an agony of boredom as the marathon of sermons ensued.

One Good Friday in the 1980s, I found myself in Santiago de Compostela, a historic pilgrim town in north-west Spain. The streets were packed by crowds gawping at men who processed through the narrow streets in white robes and hats that made them look like the Ku Klux Klan. They beat the cobbles with staves. Easter has this almost exotic mixture of gloom followed by frenzied exultation.

In other countries, believers whip themselves, don chains, even nail themselves to crosses. The bemused onlooker may ask: you call this a holiday? Well, yes. The apparent oddness is what makes it so special. Otherwise it would just be another bank holiday.

Last weekend, I added my honking tenor to a makeshift church choir. We met for the first time at 2pm on the Saturday and were given scores for The Crucifixon by the Victorian composer John Stainer.

There were about 30 of us, volunteer singers of varying standard. The idea was that we would rehearse for three hours, break for tea, then give our sole performance of the oratorio — to an audience of, as it happened, ten people. A cold church, wobbly harmonies, a tiny throng of onlookers: it no doubt sounds like Vicar Of Dibley stuff, about as spiritually uplifting as the telephone directory. Not so.

The rehearsals may have been painful but when it came to the actual performance, I found myself extraordinarily moved. It was not just Stainer’s tunes, stirring though they be. Nor was it the comradeship of choral singing that got me.

As the story of Holy Week unfolded, I found that Easter means more to me with every passing year. In that draughty church, I realised that I now prefer Easter to Christmas.

This is not to attack Yuletide which, only three months ago, we were celebrating with bells, holly, mince pies and the Christmas edition of Radio Times. I am as much of a sucker for that as most people.

Christmas has been mottled by commercialism, I suppose, but it remains a lovely family time. I well up like a leaky faucet when our ten-year-old comes clattering down to our bedroom on Christmas morning, hoping to find her stocking. I even, at weak moments, fall for Charles Dickens’s crippled Tiny Tim piping goodwill to one and all. Christmas offers a manipulative sugar rush of emotion.

Easter’s story is more layered than the happy little saga of the manger at Bethlehem. This is a story more epic, more intellectually satisfying — more showbizzy!

Medieval impresarios understood this. They staged mystery plays which covered Old Testament ground (The Garden of Eden — phwoarr, check out Eve and her skimpy outfit — and a bickering Mr and Mrs Noah) and some of Jesus’s miracles (the raising of Lazarus and the turning of water into wine always went down well).

The climax of these entertainments was Holy Week: the drama of Christ entering Jerusalem, being tried and crucified, then rising from the dead.

Christmas nativities end with the three wise men trotting off on camels and Joseph and Mary gawping at their presents. Touching? Yes, even if, as happened to us, your daughter is playing Mary and drops the baby — it was only a doll, thank goodness.

But compare that to the dazzling events of Easter and there is only one winner.

Easter has everything a West End producer could demand: a dusty Jesus riding into the city on an appropriated colt; the last supper; betrayal by Judas and arrest by soldiers from an occupying force.

There is a crowd scene when Pilate allows the mob to grant clemency to crook Barabbas; there is the bloodshed on the cross (some gore always goes down well with an audience); Jesus’s generosity to the thieves being executed alongside him; and then the dawn scene outside the sepulchre.

Imagine the first stirrings of birdsong and the ethereal light. Mary Magdalene arrives and finds the tomb empty. A second later: there is Jesus before her, alive. Showstopper.

Why does this mean more to me now than it did a few years ago? As we age, we lose loved ones. We accrue sorrows just as trees grow rings.

Perhaps this is why Easter is so powerful, so much more affecting than Christmas. Easter is a festival to sadness as much as to joy.

My late father, at the church service before Easter, always read that passage from chapter 20 of St John’s Gospel which describes Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the resurrected Christ. I only have to read the words — ‘woman, why weepest thou?’ — to hear his dry, very English voice speaking the words.

It is as though he is there beside me, just as Jesus was next to Mary. I may not be able to touch my dead father’s body, but it is nearly as good and it provokes feelings in me stronger than the easier, safer story of Christmas. So I hope that, as well as a happy Easter, you have a thoughtful Easter, even an Easter brushed by sadness. For that is how it should be.


The painful price we pay for love and the REAL meaning of Easter

By Bel Mooney

A few weeks ago, on one of the very few tall walls in our old farmhouse, we put up a dramatic, nearly life-size woodcut — actually five separate blocks — of Jesus Christ on the cross.

I’ve had it in store for ten years, with no suitable space, but at last we’ve been able to hang the work of art.

I do realise that a massive crucifixion wouldn’t be everybody’s idea of interior design. It’s more demanding and far less fashionable than the gentle head of Buddha, which crops up everywhere, from budget home stores to garden centres.

But I love this work for multi-layered reasons — and not just because the artist, Paul Riley, is an old friend.

It’s a big statement, and one which teaches me as much as it taught people in centuries past.

Why on earth would a gentle soul like me choose to live with an image of extreme suffering, torture and death? Because it is a help.

Because Easter is the most important chapter in the Christian story, and because the iconic image has important truths to tell us all — believer and non-believer alike — about the human condition.

The image of the cross towers over Western civilisation. With the joyful Nativity (complete with riotous angels in the sky) and the sombre sweetness of the Madonna and Child, it is an essential part of our consciousness.

Even a questioning intellectual like the great writer Rebecca West understood this. She wrote: ‘Jesus of Nazareth sits in a chamber in every man’s brain, immovable, immutable, however credited or discredited.’

To be honest, a part of my determination to display this great crucifixion was sheer, bolshie rebelliousness. Suddenly it seemed as if Christianity was on the run. When someone is forbidden to wear a cross around her neck in the workplace, a call to protest sounds in my ears like a trumpet.

Fascinated by other religions since my schooldays, I’ve read widely in the sacred texts of the world and made radio programmes discussing a variety of beliefs.
Why on earth would a gentle soul like me choose to live with an image of extreme suffering, torture and death? Because it is a help

Why on earth would a gentle soul like me choose to live with an image of extreme suffering, torture and death? Because it is a help. (Above, Jim Caviezel portrays Jesus in the film The Passion Of The Christ)

But the fact that Britain has always been part of the Western Christian culture matters more than I can say. Our national flag is a pattern of crosses for good reason, and so let it remain.

Notice that word ‘culture’. You can be an agnostic (as I am), yet revere the centuries of tradition which once influenced every man, woman and child who learned the stories of the Bible with their first words; knowing that ‘the greatest story ever told’ has inspired some of the greatest art — painting, sculpture, music, architecture and literature — in the world.

I feel that if the day comes when the young are no longer taught any of those references (let alone the faith itself), I shall be ready to meet my maker, because everything I value will have gone. That time seems to be on the way.

As we hung the masterly woodcut, I thought (with grim merriment) that if an unholy alliance of Secularism and Sharia ever holds sway in this land, and Christian images are actively discouraged if not forbidden, then this mutinous old lady will put up barricades and retreat to her sanctuary.

I’ll be a rebel, reading real books (including works on atheism!) and listening to Bach’s St Matthew Passion as I contemplate the cross, in the knowledge that once again it has become subversive, even an emblem of revolution.

Convinced Dawkinsites can jeer, but who cares? And keep your lectures on all the wrongs committed in the name of Christianity. I know all that stuff.

But my imagination is shaped by the pictures in the little Bible my father bought me in 1953: gentle Jesus meek and mild curing the sick, listening to the children, standing up for sinners, driving the greedy men out of the temple, riding on a humble donkey. How I liked him.

So I am content to embrace teachings like ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ as my bedrock, for how can we live unless by seeking better lives?

When my instinctive humanism quails before human wickedness, I still find meaning, consolation and emotional sense in Christianity. And when I myself wish I could write to an advice columnist, this helps keep me sane. Contemplating the Crucifixion, I see beyond the unspeakably cruel punishment.
Central to Christianity is the belief that Jesus Christ accepted his terrible death for the sake of flawed humanity.

He was the Lamb of God who sacrificed himself to take away the sins of the world. So the wider significance of the Easter story is that love and suffering are indivisible.

The history of a familiar word can lead you to a deeper meaning. We’ve high-jacked ‘passion’ to mean strong, enthusiastic feeling (passion for sport) or rage (in a real passion) or, most commonly, tumultuous sexual desire.
Pictured, the Wintershall Players perform the Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square yesterday

The traditional Passion play was about the Easter story, with its root in the Latin word for to suffer, to endure. This connects to the word 'patience'. And patient is what you must be when you shoulder the commitments of real love. Pictured, the Wintershall Players perform the Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square yesterday

But the traditional Passion play was about the Easter story, with its root in the Latin word for to suffer, to endure. In turn, this connects to the word ‘patience.’ And patient is what you must be when you shoulder the commitments of real love.

When you love another human being, you begin to make sacrifices on many levels. Perhaps above all, you sacrifice freedom.

But to take the frightening step from ‘me-first’ to ‘you-first’ isn’t easy — which is why some people never do it. They won’t take the risk, but find a reason to step back from the brink and retreat into the safety of the self.

The terror of commitment which seems to afflict so many young people is rooted in selfishness. The idea of giving so much that you actually value the happiness of somebody else more than your own doesn’t fit with the requirements of those who’ve never been refused anything, and regard the freedom to have endless multiple choices as a right.

Scratch the surface of so many problem page letters I receive and you realise that for many people the issue is not loving, but how to be loved. ‘Why can’t I find love?’ they ask. Of course I am sympathetic, but feel more uplifted by those letters which express the problem as, ‘I have so much love to give’.

Let me be clear: by invoking human love I’m not referring to the serial sexual antics of much-married stars which get splashed over Hello! magazine, but something far more mature.

The pain rooted in real love is of a very different order to the romantic agony felt when sexual desire goes wrong. It may make you stand by the sinner in spite of your better judgment, or strengthen you in an endless vigil at the bedside of your loved one. ‘I can’t bear the thought of you dying,’ whispers the young wife to her husband, knowing he feels the same.

You don’t want pain? Then you cannot allow yourself to love.

Then what of children? When you have a baby, the love you feel is so different from the old affection for parents, or adoration of a beloved partner. This protective devotion would confront a horde of wolves threatening your child.

You yearn to protect it from all the danger and grief of the world. This love makes you accept financial burdens, and tells you that from the first sight of the tiny squirming creature in a nappy, your own  desires MUST take second place to the needs of this child.

So you shrink from responsibility and sacrifice? Then don’t have a child. Love the child and you are immediately nailed to your own small cross.

In one beautiful medieval poem, Mary, the mother of Jesus, begs: ‘Take down from the tree my dear, worthy son / Or stick me on the cross with my darling.’ All over the world, devoted parents identify with that cry in their very souls.

At the stroke of a painterly brush, we move from mother and child, to adult child and mother; from the Nativity to the Pieta — the child Jesus as a man, taken down from the cross to lie in his mother’s arms. So the premonition of pain in the Madonna’s eyes was correct.

How I understand that image. Since family love in all its complexity shaped the adult that I am, the passion (yes, that word) I feel for my family puts me on the rack every day of my life.

Parents are forever tortured by the jabbing spears of their own imaginings. What’s more, your own life seems more precious than ever — not because of its selfish pleasures (fun though they are), but because you want to stay alive for the sake of the people you love.

For me, the arrival of two grandchildren has intensified this feeling. Believe me, it’s no tight-lipped sense of martyrdom, just a merry shouldering of the weight of love, just as Jesus willingly bore his cross along the alleyways of Jerusalem. 

The phrase ‘a cross I have to bear,’ comes easily to the lips, even if the speaker isn’t thinking about the emblem of Christianity. It might refer to a difficult boss, thinning hair, an inherited blemish, even a disability. It says there are some things you just have to put up with.

But endurance is hard to accept. Used to choice in all things, people stamp their feet like spoilt children when the hand of Fate wags a finger and says  ‘This is how it’s going to be’.
Since family love in all its complexity shaped the adult that I am, the passion (yes, that word) I feel for my family puts me on the rack every day of my life

That’s why Pastor Niebuhr’s famous Prayer is so wise: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’

Naturally, we should all work to right wrongs (the disgraceful state of a local hospital for example); yet you can wear yourself out railing against destiny and death.

The suggestion that we must endure — accepting hardship as the pathway to peace — may seem tough. Yet learning how to deal with not being happy is the most important first aid for the soul.

On the Cross, Jesus cried out for help but it didn’t come. It couldn’t come. I’m afraid that truth sometimes has to be borne.

But that is not the end. It doesn’t stop at the Cross. There is the light at the end of the tunnel, the ultimate pipe dream, hope against hope.

Please don’t ask if I believe in the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection. ‘No’ is the only sensible answer.

But on the other hand, I’ve always wanted to have faith in the possibility of miracles. Jesus died on the cross and on the third day he rose again? My reason rejects it, at the same time as my heart whispers, ‘What do I know?’

What I have no doubt of is this. The message of endurance, of self-sacrificial love and of forgiveness expressed by the great Crucifixion is entirely glorious.

Whatever your beliefs (or lack of them), it can give you strength to bear all problems, no matter what you believe.

Because all of us need to hope that the metaphorical stone will be rolled away — and that we will each be allowed to walk out of our private darkness into a garden of spring flowers.

This is redemption: the possibility of a changed life.


Christians are the butt of bad jokes in Britain

Gentle mockery or sharp satire aimed at Christians and their leaders has been replaced by abuse of Christianity itself

By Ann Widdecombe

Our Man at St Marks, All Gas and Gaiters, The Vicar of Dibley, Father Ted, Rev. Some of the finest comedies have chosen the Church as its subject and would indeed make most Christians laugh, give or take the occasional wince as a barb goes home. I have very fond memories of Our Man at St Marks and long for the day when it is released on DVD but I won’t hold my breath.

For although Christianity and comedy have long been natural bedfellows, something has changed in recent years. Gentle mockery or sharp satire aimed at Christians and their leaders have been replaced by abuse of Christianity itself.

The BBC asked me to look at why this might be and to try to explain, to a secular world, why it matters so much to Christians. After all, comedy producers respect Islam sufficiently to avoid laughing at the Prophet so why are even the most sacred aspects of this country’s major faith seemingly the stuff of so much comedy? Is it because the Church here is seen as part of the Establishment? Or is it due to the rise of militant atheism? Or is it simply that comics would be afraid to do to Islam that which they regularly do in their routines to Christianity?

We began making the film with one obvious drawback: it had not been a priority throughout my life to watch mockery of the Church. I had not, for example, seen Life of Brian. It was widely banned at the time of its release and I have never since felt that I was missing anything. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, assured me that it was “very funny”, so I watched excerpts chosen for me by the producer.

Most of it, being slapstick and Pythonesque, made me yawn. A man claims he can suddenly see and promptly falls down a hole. I got over laughing at that sort of predictable Carry–On stuff about 50 years ago. Then, however, came the crucifixion scene and my soul revolted. How could anybody not find that offensive, Christian or not?

Next I was shown a scene from Goodness, Gracious Me in which the body and blood of Christ were mocked with two recipients putting chutney on the bread and ordering a couple of bottles of wine. It was justly banned by the BBC and has been forbidden to be aired again. We had to get special permission to view it but those who made it were unrepentant, apparently oblivious to the enormity of the offence caused. Anil Gupta, one of the creators of the series, still felt aggrieved at the ban.

Yet this repellent scene was to provide one of the programme’s most riveting moments for me, when I was interviewing comedian Marcus Brigstocke, whose initial reaction was to defend the scene. I tried to explain to him why I found it so upsetting and then asked him if he would draw the line at anything, fully expecting him to say no, that comedy should know no bounds, but instead he bravely responded that my explanation had given him pause for thought.

Stand-up comics tend to make two assumptions: that Christians have no sense of humour and that all their audiences are unbelievers. The first is so ignorant as to need no answer but the second explains the current trend towards thinking that even the most sacrilegious mockery will be seen as fun. Such comics work on the principle that only stupid people believe in God and that their audiences are too intelligent to do so and will therefore share any joke directed at any aspect of religion.

There are increasing claims that Christians in this country are being persecuted: Christians are forbidden to wear a small cross in a workplace which includes colleagues wearing turbans or hijabs, which by any definition are vastly more visible. One has been demoted for posting a perfectly moderate expression of dissent over gay marriage on his private Facebook site. Others have been disciplined for saying “God Bless” or “I will pray for you”. Others still have found the police on their doorstep because someone has taken exception to their views and invoked either hatred or equality laws.

Perhaps then the modern trend towards ridiculing what is sacred to Christians in comedy – as opposed to ridiculing its priests or congregations – is a part of this persecution? Why otherwise single out only the one religion?

To that the comics answer that people can laugh only at what they know and understand: that the average Briton knows next to nothing of Islam and even less of other minority faiths. Indeed it seems unlikely that Life of Brian would have much resonance today. To laugh at the joke “blessed are the cheesemakers” you would have to know that Christ had said “blessed are the peacemakers” and standards of Biblical literacy now make that unlikely.

So the laughs today are sought not in subtlety but in coarseness, sneering at the creed having replaced satire aimed at the believers, and mockery of the person of Christ replacing mockery of His all too fallible followers.

It is a vital distinction.

We have no blasphemy laws these days but with that freedom comes the responsibility which should always attend the exercise of free speech: truth, courtesy and an awareness of impact. It is the last of these which is so neglected by so much modern comedy.

Heard the one about the vicar, the priest and the rabbi? Or the vicar who skived off church to play golf? Or how Noah’s ark was ruled unlawful by the EU? Everybody has a favourite Church joke but I made this programme in order to ask where the joke stops and how much further it might go. Sadly I think it might go a lot further before common decency prevails.


Cameron accused of betraying Christians: Astonishing Easter attack on the PM by former Archbishop of Canterbury

Many Christians doubt David Cameron’s sincerity in pledging to protect their freedoms, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey says today.

In an article for the Daily Mail, Lord Carey squarely accuses ministers of ‘aiding and abetting’ discrimination against Christians.

He says he believes there is an ‘aggressive secularist and relativist approach’ behind the Government plans to legalise gay marriage and says the Prime Minister has ‘done more than any other recent political leader’ to ‘feed’ Christian anxieties.

As a dramatic new poll released on the eve of Easter Sunday revealed that more than two-thirds of Christians feel they are now part of a ‘persecuted minority’, Lord Carey insists the Government must do more to demonstrate its commitment to pledges to stand up for faith.

The survey suggests churchgoers increasingly feel religious freedoms are under assault from aggressive secularism.

Critics say court rulings against Christians who want to wear crosses at work, and legal action preventing prayers before council meetings, have helped make people feel marginalised.

In the article, Lord Carey expresses particular alarm about apparent Government support for a campaign by Labour MP Chris Bryant to turn the 700-year-old Parliamentary chapel of St Mary Undercroft into a multi-faith prayer room so that gay couples can get married there.

But he also turns his fire on the Prime Minister, saying: ‘It was a bit rich to hear that the Prime Minister has told religious leaders that they should “stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation” when it seems that his government is aiding and abetting this aggression every step of the way.

‘At his pre-Easter Downing Street reception for faith leaders, he said that he supported Christians’ right to practise their faith. Yet many Christians doubt his sincerity.’

The ComRes poll suggests there is continuing resentment over the Government’s decision to legalise same-sex unions, even though there is special protection for the Church of England in the law.

More than half (58 per cent) of Christians who backed the Conservatives in 2010 suggested they will ‘definitely not’ vote for the party in 2015.

The ComRes poll of 535 regular churchgoers, commissioned by the Coalition for Marriage (C4M), reveals that more than two-thirds (67 per cent) of Christians feel that they are part of a ‘persecuted minority’.

The march of secularism means that if trends continue, Britain will no longer be a Christian country by 2030 when the number of non-believers will have overtaken the number of Christians.

In the past six years the number of Muslims has surged by 37 per cent to 2.6million, Hindus by 43 per cent and Buddhists by a massive 74 per cent.

Numbers who choose to call themselves Christians fell by more than 4million in a decade after 2001, the 2011 census showed. Fewer than six out of ten – 59.3 per cent – described themselves as Christian.

A decade ago nearly three quarters, 72 per cent, did so. Some 33.2million people said they were Christian in 2011.

Downing Street strongly rejected Lord Carey’s attack. A spokesman said: ‘This government strongly backs faith and Christianity in particular, including backing the rights of people wanting to wear crosses at work and hold prayers at council meetings. Christianity plays a vital part in the Big Society.’



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the  incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of  other countries.  The only real difference, however, is how much power they have.  In America, their power is limited by democracy.  To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already  very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges.  They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did:  None.  So look to the colleges to see  what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way.  It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH,   EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICSDISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL  and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine).   My Home Pages are here or   here or   here.  Email me (John Ray) here


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