THE discipline of the Christian calendar, like all discipline,
is sometimes hard to bear. The arrival of Holy Week and Easter,
dependent upon the lunar cycle, often has no bearing on the lives
of worshippers. Birth, death, work, illness - many things can occur
that distract Christians from their customary observances. This is
when the measured reliability of the Church is most valuable.
Knowing that others are at prayer is a source of comfort for those
unable to join them.
Slightly more awkward, because of the guilt it brings with it,
is a disinclination to take part in the services held over this
weekend. There can be many causes. Those devising the services
cannot hope to satisfy everyone. Traditional elements can appear
stale; innovation can be disturbing. Preaching, music, ceremony -
even the weather - all have the capacity to disappoint as well as
inspire. Beyond this, there is a natural tendency to shy away from
the horror of the crucifixion. John Donne, composing "Good Friday,
1613, Riding Westward", spoke of gladness at avoiding the pain of
contemplating Christ's last hours:
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made his own lieutenant Nature shrink,
It made his footstool crack, and the sun wink.
The discipline of Lent can form a structure that schools the
emotions, and holds excess in check. And the calendar, together
with reason, and faith, reminds the penitent that the resurrection
has happened, and that God's love has been realised. But the Gospel
accounts of Christ's last hours have the effect of thinning the
skin, sometimes to the extent that Good Friday becomes too much to
One problem is that grief - for this is the central emotion of
Holy Week - although felt communally is experienced differently by
each individual. The external sorrow of Christ's fate attaches
itself to the internal hurts and regrets of each mourner, and thus
its effect is to separate people rather than unite them. A Good
Friday congregation is a lonely place, merely a collection of
individuals. The most helpful service is one that manages to allow
worshippers the solitude they need, while offering them the
solicitude of the words and music that others have crafted down the
ages to express their grief. Silence is a help, although
individuals in the congregation have different tolerances of
distractions, with the result that most clergy need to fight the
symptoms of anxiety after about 20 seconds.
In contrast, the noisy joy of Easter Day has the power to bring
disparate people together. Again, for some, immediate circumstances
prevent participation, or even attendance; but the infectious,
healing qualities of joy can overcome much. Donne's point is that,
through the rigours of penitence, but principally through God's
mercy, all can have the courage to face the resurrected Christ:
Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face.