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Silent Witness: the Word made flesh

21 June 2019

Yesterday was Corpus Christi, the day of thanksgiving for the eucharist. Adrian Leak offers a reflection


A Melkite priest celebrates the eucharist in Nazareth

A Melkite priest celebrates the eucharist in Nazareth

EVERY morning, I say “Blessed are you, Sovereign God, creator of all: to you be glory and praise for ever.” But I say it silently, not aloud. Although I believe that the truth that those words express is fundamental to my life, I do not shout them from the rooftop. Why not? Am I a coward, afraid to acknowledge in public my Lord Jesus Christ? Even those four words — “My Lord Jesus Christ” I find hard to say in ordinary conversation, unless I speak them within the context of a church service — within, that is, the cordon sanitaire of my profession. My clerical collar licenses me to utter the unspeakable.

Even if I had the courage, as some do, to stand on the street corner and proclaim, “I have found the answer to life’s riddle and its pain. I have seen a glory that transfigures all,” I would not do so.

English reserve has been blamed for our reluctance to speak of the eternal verities. We are ready at the dinner-table to utter our opinion on the current performance of the English cricket team, or the new production of Parsifal at Covent Garden, or the latest TV psycho-drama (plot inscrutable, diction inaudible, camera angles all over the place), but we are reduced to a shocked silence by a fellow guest’s tactless reference to our Christian belief. Is there more than good manners to account for our embarrassment?

LORD Melbourne, that quintessential English gentleman, was uneasy when quizzed by the young Queen Victoria over his noticeable absence from church. He claimed that he was “afraid to go for fear of hearing something very extraordinary”. She thought his affected flippancy “all stuff”, and said so. Disraeli, the young outsider, observed Melbourne’s uneasy behaviour at the coronation when he wore his coronet deliberately askew and carried the great sword of state “like a butcher”. Likewise, friends of the bridegroom sometimes affect a detached amusement at the solemn proceedings, lest they be seen to take them seriously.

But there is a deeper cause for our embarrassment than diffidence. In 1905, the young T. S. Eliot asked the “overwhelming question” in his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. It is the question that many of us feel, but cannot find the words to utter.

Prufrock, the weary cynic, invites us to go with him through half-deserted streets, observing the arid townscape of our lives, the emptiness and disappointments, the failed hopes and lost vision, the bonhomie and vapid hilarity; and, at every turn, the crushing triviality of it all — a life measured out in coffee-spoons. He wonders whether, even if he had had the courage to challenge life, it would have been worth the bother. What would be the point, were he

To have squeezed the universe into a ball,
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all’

if the hearer were to reply, “That is not what I meant. . . That’s not it, at all”?

LIKE many who have read that poem, and possibly like the poet himself, I, too, have been Prufrock, unable to communicate not the doubting question “What is it?” but the glorious answer. Better, perhaps, to remain a silent witness than to speak out and be misunderstood.

We lack a language to express our deepest thoughts, and are accustomed to making do with the loose change of small talk. Ready-made phrases, colloquial asides, conventional half-truths provide us with a ready currency. Irony, not solemnity, is our default position in society. We are at a loss when serious issues call for a rarer coinage.

Did Lazarus tell them all? Did he proclaim, “I have found the answer to life’s riddle and its pain. I have seen a glory that transfigures all”? Perhaps, at first, he did, but, as the months passed and the daily routines reasserted themselves, life in Bethany must have returned to normal. Neighbours soon got used to seeing him round the village, waiting every morning to catch the bus to work and in the evening digging his allotment.

And, when they met his sister Martha at the corner shop, bustling as usual — this time to buy some tea for her friend from Galilee who had dropped in unexpectedly — they talked about this and that, but with scarcely a fleeting reference to Lazarus (”Your brother all right now, dear?”), before reverting to the price of sugar.

WHAT their friend from Galilee later gave Lazarus and his sisters was, indeed, the answer to life’s riddle and its pain. At first, when he said “I am the resurrection and the life,” they did not understand. But, later, they did, when they saw Christ’s glory shining from the cross, transfiguring all. He gave them, as he gives us, too, a language strong enough to bear the weight of that reality. “This is my body which is given for you. . . This is my blood which is shed for you” are, for us, the words of life, to be spoken quietly — not shouted from the rooftop, or proclaimed at the street corner, or headlined in bold, or diminished to a strapline; but uttered and received within the quiet intimacy of a holy communion.

The Revd Adrian Leak is a retired priest in the diocese of Guildford. His latest collection of essays, Archbishop Benson’s Humming Top, is published by the Book Guild at £13.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.60).

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