Today is the ultimate Remembrance Day
Arguments for Easter v There can be no festivity without mourning, argues Margaret Hebblethwaite, in the second of our Easter series. Tomorrow's Alleluias are empty otherwise.
Saturday 15 April 1995
Holy Saturday, today, is a day of mourning, of deadness, of the empty pain of loss and the dull shock of bereavement. It is the ultimate Remembrance Day, a time for remembering death by torture. It is a day when Christians beg the secular world to respect our grief. Spare us the tastelessness of fairground music, of invitations to parties, of holiday noise and clatter.
We do not ask anyone to make a false show of faith. We just want a little sensitivity and the easing of social pressures. Christians in the United States asked - and were granted - a postponement of the general release of the controversial film Priest from Good Friday to the week after Easter, not because they necessarily disapproved of the film (though many did) but because the timing "crossed the line of decency".
There is something odd about the secular custom of celebrating Easter but not Holy Week. It is as though non-Christians believed Jesus rose without believing that he died - the opposite of what you would expect. But we live in a world that, for all its professed lack of "the feel-good factor", is determined to have festivity without mourning.
It would not be a bad idea for everyone, of any faith or none, to keep this week in memory of those whom liberation theologians call "the crucified peoples of the world". Only a regular and sober reflection of the facts of persecution and misery will shock us into the determination that the world must be ordered more justly. The real political will to effect change can only come when we have been driven by the horror of our recollections to cry out: "But these things must never happen again."
Two thousand years ago a man was nailed naked to planks and was mocked by crowds as he hung by his hands and feet, until he died from breathlessness and exhaustion. Today, comparable obscenities still go on. In prisons scattered around the world, people are deprived of sleep; they are burned; they are beaten; they have their heads ducked under water until they lose consciousness; they are tied to metal bedframes and have electric probes applied to their sexual parts. In Iraq, men have their hands sliced off.
Not in our country, we may think, and yet our ancestors carried out tortures of comparable brutality. In Britain too, people have had their hands cut off, or their ears, or been branded on the forehead or cheeks. They have had their tongues bored through with a hot iron, or lived with fetters around their ankles for years causing sores that never healed. They have sat crouched in the dark in a tiny 4ft-by-4ft chamber in the Tower, or had their intestines cut out and dangled before their eyes. They have been fed on bad bread with no water one day, and dirty water with no bread the next, until they died of starvation. They have been crushed on the Scavenger's Daughter, until the blood burst out of their compressed bodies at the tips of the hands or feet or through the mouth and nostrils. Nowadays we do not mention thumbscrews unless to make jokes - jokes in monumentally bad taste.
Even today, in the United States, men are "fried" by electrocution, until their skin is stretched to breaking point, their flesh smells of cooked meat and their eyes pop out and rest on their cheeks. Today in Britain, a not dissimilar relish is displayed over the news that a certain woman should "rot in jail until she dies" (the Sun, 17 December 1994).
These tortures of the past and present, evoked by the Good Friday events, are well attested accounts that should revolt us all. It is the next instalment - tomorrow's joy - that we might expect to be a minority concern.
Tomorrow Christians will wake - those who have been to bed, for some will follow ancient custom in staying up all night waiting for the dawn - trembling with excitement because they believe the worst horrors imaginable have been overturned and the tomb of death is empty. Like their secular sisters and brothers, they will give eggs and flowers, but they will mean them as a symbol of faith in the risen life of Christ and a pledge of commitment to a new tomorrow.
They will ring bells and sing Alleluias and repeat "Christ is risen, he is risen indeed", and their cries will break out from the profundity of their hearts because this week, like a spring depressed, will have taken them to the pits before catapulting them to the heights. Do not rob us of our Holy Week: there is no Easter without it.
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