Arguments for Easter: Today is the still turning centre of the world

Between the agony of Good Friday and the ecstasy of Easter Day lies the silence of this fallow Saturday. But listen carefully and you will hear the sound of laughter

TODAY, IF we are not distracted by the usual pleasures of a bank holiday weekend, we remember the most extraordinary sabbath in history: the day of rest that separated the Friday on which Jesus died and the Sunday on which he returned alive. It is a hiatus so marked that it has made the turning-point of history - God's engagement with death and conquest of it - seem like two distinct events, with their own respective theologies.

In our present culture, which is generally so intolerant of delay, there are still occasions when we like to wait, if only for a moment. We enjoy the timing of the comedian who allows our false expectations to form before he demolishes them with his punchline. We appreciate the way the film-maker spins out the seconds between the leap and the landing to build the suspense and our eventual relief.

And so, in theory, we might account for this Saturday. The Resurrection, after all, is the ultimate comic reversal, the supreme coup de theatre, and God might be allowed to keep the world fooled just for a day. But the story of that first Easter weekend is a story of real people plunged into real grief and despair.

In his deeply painful poem "I Am", John Clare spoke of "the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems". It is, I suspect, an apt description of what the friends and followers of Jesus were experiencing.

"We had hoped," one of them was to say on the Sunday, in the famous encounter on the road to Emmaus, "that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel" - and in that messianic faith was invested all that their hearts desired for themselves, their families, their nation and the world.

Everything that matters in life they had expected Jesus to accomplish for them. It is difficult to imagine - after his execution in the most horrific and degrading way that contemporary civilisation could devise - what consolation might have remained to them.

Why, then, did Jesus delay to put an end to their misery? Perhaps there was a practical reason, to prove that he was truly dead before he revealed that he was truly alive. Perhaps, to God's perfect sense of timing, a day is only a fraction of a second. But the question seems relevant because it is this day of hiatus, when all the passion of Passiontide has been drained away, that resonates most strongly with our own times.

History, so the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama tells us, has ended - without the denouement Jesus promised. Its final resolution, it seems, is not the triumph of cosmic good and the realisation of the kingdom of God on earth, but the global ascendancy of liberal capitalism and the magic kingdom of Disney. Like the disciples, we are retreating into our little communities, looking for reassurance where we can no longer find vision or purpose. How appropriate, some might say, if there is no room for Jesus in the Millennium Dome: 2,000 years after he claimed to be the redeemer and lord of the world, the mirage of peace and justice still shimmers out of reach, and we are about to enter the 21st century AD ("of our Lord") without faith, without meaning and with only the most limited aspirations - a cure for cancer, perhaps, and some decent television.

This withering of hope is, I imagine, what T.S. Eliot had in mind in "The Hollow Men". Humankind has waited too long: the shadow that falls "between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act" has stretched and stretched until our strength has given out. We cannot complete the statement of faith "For Thine is the Kingdom", or even finish the tired complaint that life hangs heavy. The end of the world is a state of enervation. No wonder that the most zealous churches tend to be those that expect the apocalypse now: it is difficult to keep your light burning if you are wondering whether the darkness will last for another 20 centuries.

The Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday - a sabbath without hope or consolation for those first followers of Jesus - stands for all the centuries that have followed. No matter whether life is more comfortable or more secure - or, even, more rewarding - than it was in Jesus's day: the point is that the kingdom has not come.

Whether or not the rest of the world has been listening to the "good news", that the exile of the human race is over and all of creation is reconciled to its Creator, the Church has announced it, and announced it again, and announced it again - and still the promised resolution has failed to materialise. Alienation has become the hallmark of our culture. Creation is "groaning in travail" still, and now more loudly than ever. No wonder the smile seems to be frozen on the faces of many Christians.

Is this all that we have to look forward to? An endless vista of days without meaning? Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? No. The lesson of this Saturday is that, whether we are waiting faithfully for it or not, a day will break which will be the last - and that day will reveal that the victory of Jesus is indeed already complete. We do not know - and perhaps it is beyond our comprehension - why that punchline has been so long delayed. But when it comes, the sound of triumph will be the roar of laughter.

Huw Spanner is publisher of `Third Way' magazine

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