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A lesson in passion from the young

13 April 2017

Paul Vallely detects the suffering of Jesus in the plight of refugees today

TOWARDS the end of Lent, the young people in our parish were invited to take the lead in the Stations of the Cross. Instead of following the traditional format, they chose to have the parish meditate upon a different image of a refugee for each of the stages in the Passion of our Lord. It is in the plight of refugees, they were telling us, that we can most closely detect the presence of Christ sharing the suffering of humanity in our own time.

As a young boy in church, in the days before I began my grammar-school Latin, I remember thinking that the word “Passion” was intended to instil an intensity of feeling as we recalled Jesus’s grim journey from the court of Pilate to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea.

In fact, the word “passion” comes from passio, Latin for suffering. Yet my youthful solecism still carries an emotional truth. Strong feeling and suffering are deeply intertwined, and not just in Christian theology.

The provenance and persistence of that was brought home by a recent production of Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Women: a play conceived in a pre-Christian world and performed in a largely post-Christian one.

The drama centres on the journey of hope and tribulation of 50 young women, descendants of a mortal woman, Io, and the immortal Zeus. The women have dedicated themselves to Artemis, the goddess of virginity, and so refuse to marry their male cousins in Egypt. To escape the men, they flee across the ocean to claim asylum in Argos, the land of their ancestor’s birth.

It is not hard to see why the Actors Touring Company would choose to perform this, one of the oldest surviving plays in history. These women are asylum-seekers who risk their lives in a perilous voyage across an unfriendly ocean. The contemporary resonances are obvious. And the passionate determination of the young women on keeping their virgin vows — in the teeth of the opinion of the sons of Aegyptos, and later the citizens of Argos, that they should marry — is a useful vehicle for a fiery modern feminist insistence that women should control their own destiny.

Intriguingly, the King of Argos asks the citizens what should be done, and the people vote to give asylum to the suppliant women, even at the risk of war with Egypt. The ancient text contains the first recorded use of the word democracy — rule of the common people — the form of government by direct vote of the citizenry which was instituted in Athens soon after the play’s first performance 2500 years ago. But the warm welcome cools as a cultural clash emerges between the visiting votaries of Artemis, and the local population who worship Aphrodite, the goddess of love, union, and fecundity.

Such cultural clashes abound in our society today, where a modern representative democracy has been less generous in its welcome to asylum-seekers. Perhaps we would do well to adopt more generally the practice of seeing the Passion of Jesus through the images of refugees in our own time. The passion of the young still has things to teach the weary wisdom of the old.

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