There is something very beguiling about the assumed certainties of an age. Every epoch has a zeitgeist, a spirit and momentum that permits and promotes certain ideas while suppressing others. Although it is easy to see that many things believed 50 years ago would be disregarded today, we somehow lack the skill to use that knowledge to inform our current certainties. Many of our closely held truths resist even the hint that their confidence might be presumed and fleeting. Scientific enquiry is based on the conviction that there is always more to discover and learn. Our curiosity tells the implicit truth that what we know today will be overshadowed by what we know tomorrow; in a hundred years, or in future millennia.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the ‘archive’ which dictates what can and can’t be said at a certain time. Increasingly it feels that religious language and discourse is constrained by apparent self-certainties which have limited faith to a territory of personal eccentricity and unproven beliefs. Like many of the clergy, I am keen to promote the witness of Christian faith in the world, yet it feels like religious buildings are one of the last physical spaces where such discussions are sanctioned. The other place is in the micro-spaces of pastoral care, where both desire and disillusion provide a temporary framework for encounter – a tent of meeting.
Perhaps part of the difficulty in modern circumstances is the growing gap between the biblical world and our experience. Visiting Tanzania some years ago it was noticeable just how routine many aspects of the Bible continued to be. Shepherds and goatherds were part of most communities, and meeting someone at a well or watering hole was an everyday event. In the West, by contrast, many people are distanced from these experiences. During the pandemic this has been taken a stage further, when it is only in the mind or via video that a Palm Sunday crowd can be experienced – or even a supper with twelve friends.
However, several key elements of the Holy Week narratives may have found fresh life and relevance during the pandemic. As we see in Ribera’s painting, being alone, semi-hidden and suffering, is a central image of what transpires between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This coming week is about loss, in all its manifold forms. Friends disappear; strangers inflict pain; even God is gone at the moment of dereliction and expressed in the cry from the cross. For those who seek it, Holy Week opens the window to a God who walks this most painful road. Whose sinews, breath and bones know what it means to be human, to suffer and to die.
Since I first came across it many years ago I never pass through Holy Week without picking up my copy of Vanstone’s Stature of Waiting. It is an insightful and scholarly engagement with the days ahead and was a source of inspiration when I became a hospital chaplain. There is so much waiting in health care. In many ways waiting is the chief role of a chaplain, coming with open hands to handle with gentleness the precious narratives of wounded lives. To allow people time to articulate the experiences and consequences of illness. It is not a waiting anyone would choose, but as Vanstone argues, it is not without meaning.
Let us notice first that any kind of waiting presupposes some kind or degree of caring. One cannot be said to wait for or upon something which is a matter of indifference.
This Holy Week and Easter many more people are waiting than in recent years. Waiting for a longed reunion with a friend or family member; waiting for a holiday; waiting to resume work. Sadly, in many instances, waiting to hold a memorial service for the friends and family of a loved one who died in the last year. We wait for these things because of our longing and our care – and no doubt many wait for a fairer and more just society. Waiting isn’t easy, but it’s full of meaning. As we approach Easter let’s consider the Gospel accounts afresh, revisiting them with our current experiences and needs. To offer ourselves in stillness and reflection to the God who longs for us to understand and pursue our true vocation. We should never underestimate what emerges when we put aside the business of life and make space to consider what, for us, is true.