Here is all suffering and death and desolation

Arguments for Easter v

Today is Good Friday. In the first of our meditations for Easter the Rev John Kennedy reflects on the Passion from a Rock of Ages in Wiltshire.

There is a green hill a little south of Avebury, that astonishing neolithic settlement which thousands of people will visit this Easter. A gentle walk up a rough track takes you across the Ridgeway and away from the crowds. Here can be found a perspective on the Passion to equal any expressed in our churches today - the great themes of cosmic evil, human frailty and the ambivalence of human action.

On the hilltop you will find a scattering of boulders, Sarsen Stones. Six centuries ago, our forebears had a quite sensible view of how these hard rocks came to lie on the soft chalk. Here was the wreckage remaining from the fall of the Rebellious Angels from Heaven, in God's struggle against cosmic wickedness. But in their view the battle was not over, and the earth was still subject to demonic rule. For these stones were called Sarsens, after the Saracens, and so Jews and Muslims were drafted into the medieval demonology.

Our modern version of the matter is just as strange. One of these Sarsens is marked with six long grooves - in rock five times harder than granite. From 4000 BC, this stone was used to sharpen flints - day by day, century by unchanging century, for 2,000 years. The thing is awe-inspiring. It carries with it a sense of deep geological and human time, of a sort that makes the usual Christian time-frame seem parochial - except for that mystic view which makes sense of the universe only in the light of Christ crucified from eternity.

This Rock of Ages invites pilgrimage, and provokes reflection: not least on the folk who used it. They were a tough lot, barely surviving through great hardship. Their tiny populations remained stable; which means that nature inflicted on them a routine slaughter of the innocents, the sacrifice of women and babies in childbirth. (Gaia's not nice, unless you are protected by sewers and central heating.) We know from their rituals of propitiation that they feared forces of ineluctable evil; that they grieved at the loss of loved ones, no matter how frequent that loss. And though feeble their force of human agency, we see the mark that their persistence made on the world around them.

These themes are the themes of the Passion. First, the sense that evil is too powerful and pervasive to be explained merely by human depravity. Further, there is the apprehension that we are most vulnerable to the power of evil on the other side of death. In this central strand of the Passion narrative, Christ's death dispels our fear of it, and in his death we may rest in peace. But Christian belief has itself inflamed those fears of the evil other, especially the evil religious other. We have often proved more barbaric than tiny Wiltshire tribes co-existing under different gods; we have been only too willing to recrucify Christ in the name of Christ.

A second great theme is that of human sympathy in the face of unbearable grief. Our little ancestors wept as we do when they laid their lost ones in the ground. The intimate scene of Christ suffering in front of his mother on Good Friday is deeply moving. Here is not simply God's assault on evil; here is the whole human experience of suffering and death and desolation.

These are the traditional themes of the Passion. More modern is that of human agency, though it springs from our shared historic experience. Our neolithic neighbours were not merely victims of their environment, but makers of it. They gouged that Sarsen, and they created Avebury itself. There is ambivalence in that activity, though. Auden saw it clearly in his meditation on the Cross; that without authority, organisation and skill

At this noon, for this death,

there would be no agents.

But the world remained largely unmarked by humanity in the long centuries before this one. It is dramatically different now. Then medieval cosmologists would understand our fantastic new fears. They would understand the notion of the firmament, shielding the earth from cosmic terrors - and the anxiety of it being breached. They would understand that the firmament might be cursed by demonic power, and they would even see the connection between global warming and boiling a kettle in Ogbourne St George. Indeed, our neolithic and medieval forebears might see us as immensely powerful, demonic figures, rather than the prosaic innocents that we appear to ourselves.

So the themes of the passion are embedded deeply in our common human experience - in our terrors, in our shared suffering, in the ambivalence of our exercise of power. It is that many-layered complex of experience that we invoke on Good Friday; it is then that our capacity to fear, to grieve and to be moved arises most powerfully, from the depths of time and from the depths of the human heart.

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn