NOWADAYS, it seems, our calendars have been commandeered by vested interests. The seasons have been homogenised by the supermarkets, which offer us strawberries in winter and chestnuts in spring. Christmas has been expanded into a month-long festival of shopping, and almost every day of the year has been requisitioned by one lobby group or another.
Amidst all this, there is something very quaint about Holy Week. Apart from a minor incursion by the chocolate industry, no one gives much thought to the climax of the Christian year except for a dwindling number of churchgoers and the programmers at the BBC, who like to run documentaries on Easter Sunday which reveal that Christianity is all a hoax. No one except the ecclesiastical trainspotters knows why Easter falls when it does each year. In Britain today there will be many people have little idea why Good Friday is so called.
Quaintest of all is the fact that the week seems to be a celebration of ancient history. Ours is not a culture that venerates the past. Three centuries of modernity have invested all our hopes and dreams in the future. We have learned to belittle tradition and to feel sorry for our ancestors (and a little ashamed of them). The new dawn that is supposed to lie ahead of us only makes the shadows behind us seem even darker.
Indeed, we have marginalised the past. "Heritage" has been substituted for a true sense of history. Crucial events are recast by the entertainment industry to suit our tastes and prejudices. The long vista of the centuries is compressed by our ignorance, so that we are told that Donovan Bailey is the fastest man of all time, as if time only began with the stopwatch.
The past is not just another country, it is another world. And it appears to be getting ever more remote. The recent exponential growth in the human population has changed our perspective. Once, people felt the weight of the countless generations who had lived before them; now, it is the living and the yet to be born who crowd in on us.
A second factor is the acceleration of new technology. It took a thousand years for Western Europe to regain the height of civilisation it had enjoyed under the Roman Empire - and yet in the past century we have made such advances that the lives even of the Victorians seem to us primitive. Electricity and antibiotics, the internal combustion engine and the mass media have so transformed our daily experience that we find it hard even to identify with people who somehow lived without them.
What possible relevance or resonance can we find today in the trial and execution of a poor man 2,000 years ago? Even the cause he died for is difficult to make out at this distance. At least the deaths of Socrates and Julius Caesar involved principles that still make sense to us.
But what if the events of Holy Week - for all the costume drama of Oberammergau - are not locked in antiquity at all? Didn't Jesus say, "Before Abraham was born, I am"? And the Book of Revelation speaks of "the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world." These are reflections on the nature of time as daring as anything that science has proposed. Indeed, Christian thinking suggests that ultimate reality - that is, eternity - is a timeless present, for which the past is not "over" but just "over there".
Perhaps this is a point of contact for our own culture, which increasingly lives in the present. For the same explosions of population and technology that have distanced us from the past now make the future a frightening place. Much of the mythology of progress has already proved to be a lie. Posterity - which was once supposed to judge us - we resent for the obligations it places on us, if we think of it at all. Consumerism and the liberal democracy that Francis Fukuyama hailed as "the end of history" have fixated us on the short term. The future is as closed to us as a source of inspiration or incentive as the past.
For such a culture, isolated and imprisoned in the present, Holy Week stands not so much as a reminder of events long gone, or even as a promise of some great denouement to come, but as a revelation that meaning and resolution are located in the immediate, eternal present in which the Son of God is crucified, and victorious over death. "Today" is a crucial word in the Christian faith. "Choose this day whom you will serve," said Joshua once. "Today," said Jesus, "you will be with me in paradise."Reuse content