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Riding westward

17 April 2014

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 cope with.

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.

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