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

The Mail, Easter 2013


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, passiontorture and death? Because it is a help.

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.

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'.

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.




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