Christianity is no National Trust of the Spirit

Maundy Thursday is a day for remembrance. But the result should be liberation rather than nostalgia, says Richard Holloway, the Bishop of Edinburgh.
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The Independent Online
Human beings make a point of remembering significant events in their past, because they know that forgetting is as natural as remembering. There are people we once thought we could never forget, yet only the prompting of an old photograph or a letter discovered in a book we haven't picked up for years calls them to mind.

This is why the great spiritual traditions insist on the ordered remembrance of the saving events in the life of the community. For Christians, Holy Week is a sustained act of recollection of the last days of Jesus, and the theme of remembrance is particularly important on this day, Maundy Thursday. But the kind of remembrance we have in mind is revolutionary, not nostalgic.

The liturgy for this day enjoins us to bring the past into remembrance in a way that makes it actually present. The theological term for this mysterious process is anamnesis, the word used by Jesus at the Last Supper, when he told us to eat the bread and wine in remembrance of him. When Christians celebrate the eucharist, they are making his presence real now, not simply looking back at his presence then.

Aaron Copland once said that "we are in search of a usable past". We need a past we can use in the present. We need a remembering that will strengthen rather than weaken us.

Many people carry the past in a way that makes it difficult for them to respond to the challenges of their own day. They bear burdens of personal guilt for sin or loads of regret for the way things were, but are no longer. They interpret the command of Jesus at the Last Supper as an exhortation to look back to some sacred historical moment, rather than as a challenge to discover his meaning for today. So Christianity then becomes part of the heritage industry, the National Trust of the Spirit, there to preserve not only old buildings and old words, but old customs and prejudices. Rather than finding Jesus in our own present, it calls upon us to look back at him in a past that is no longer available to us.

Christianity has always found it easy to fall into this mood of immobilising conservatism. Behind it lies an understanding of God not as liberator, but as an unforgiving parent whose disapproval is constant and whose benediction can only be earned by conformity to an unyielding code.

This version of Christianity breeds stunted personalities who inveigh against humanity and its follies, because they hate the devil more than they love God. It has prevented us from living creatively and joyously, because it has instilled into us a false understanding of God as the great potty-trainer in the sky who will love us only if we keep ourselves immaculate and never get into a mess.

This is the great caricature that Jesus came to overturn. Martin Luther said that if we had nothing of the New Testament except the parable of the Prodigal Son we would have the complete gospel, because it contains Jesus's essential message of the unconditional love of God, waiting for us to return from all our wanderings. We know enough about our own nature to understand that we can only love if we are first loved.

This is good parenting as well as good theology. We have to be loved as we are, with all that we have made of our lives: wrong roads taken, right roads not taken; the fools we've been, the messes we got into; the helplessness of so much of our living, yet remembering, remembering constantly, that we are loved and that God is still there for us after all our wanderings.

That is a message worth bearing in remembrance. On this day, as we recall the last supper of the man who came to make our lives more abundant, we remember also the kindness of God and the original love that gave us being and will one day transform that being into glory. This love gives us courage to live joyously and imaginatively, not fearfully and nervously, because we know that God's perfect love has cast out fear. In the liturgy of this day it is customary to ring bells of joy. The bleakness of Holy Week is suddenly illuminated by a presentment of bliss, because we know that even in the long agonies of time Jesus is still present to us in the breaking of the bread.