Month: March 2016

The Shadow of the Empty Tomb

One of the dubious advantages to having a social media presence is that you learn all kinds of things you never wanted to know. For example: today, apart from being Palm Sunday, is International Happiness Day.

I have what people younger or more American than myself would call a bone with International Happiness Day. As a sufferer from chronic, and sometimes severe, depression I really do not appreciate being told to feel happy. I have had more than my share of random passers-by telling me to ‘cheer up mate, it might never happen’ and of, better-intentioned but still crushing, pep talks from people who would never dream of telling a cancer sufferer than a more positive attitude could make everything better.

Even if my own capacity to produce happiness were more reliable, there is something morally questionable about the suggestion that happiness is an appropriate default disposition towards the world. A planet on which the Syrian people continue to suffer at the hands of multiple warring parties and where the post powerful nation on the planet may well elect a man who wants to build a wall to exclude Mexicans does not obviously warrant a smile. If I break into raucous laughter upon learning that a friend has a terminal illness then I need either a doctor or a confessional.

The culpable cheeriness of those who haven’t noticed that the world is a mess is closely related to a certain kind of glib optimism, Terry Eagleton’s target in his excellent Hope Without Optimism. Of the many problems with this upbeat creed is its incapacity to take seriously the reality and indelibility of human misery. If the bad is immediately and trivially outweighed by the good, or at least due to be swept away from sight or memory by the forward march of History, then efforts to improve our present lot are unlikely to be a priority.

This disturbingly positive attitude is very different from the joy that is taken to characterise Christian hope. This does not consist in obedience to an imperative to always look on the bright side of life. The joyful Christian has a quiet confidence that ultimate victory belongs to God in Christ. She has no idea, given the current state of the world, how this could possibly turn out to be the case, but she believes that the one Jesus calls ‘Father’ brought about the empty tomb after the Cross. Agreeing with Karl Barth that,

‘The No is not the last and highest truth, but the call from home which comes in answer to our asking for God in the world.’  (The Word of God and the Word of Man)

she does not assume that this will make everything OK. She does, however, believe that history is ultimately in the hands of Love. This changes her understanding of everything, whilst making no perceivable difference.

This attitude is present throughout the liturgy for Holy Week; in fact we would hardly be keeping the week were it not for it. The news of the resurrection is the lens through which we view the passion and death of Jesus. Palm Sunday, already shot through with the tension of triumph and coming tragedy, is a Sunday. The week begins, as does every week, with the memorial of the Lord’s resurrection. The palm procession is to an altar, where the sacramental presence of the Risen Lord will be celebrated. In the evening, the Church will sing at vespers: ‘It is written: “I will strike the shepherd down and the sheep of his flock will be scattered.” But after my resurrection I will go before you into Galilee; there you will see me, said the Lord’.

The daily Eucharist – an action which flows from the resurrection as much as the Last Supper – contextualises the journey to the Cross through the week within the wider story of God’s triumph. On Good Friday, when there is no Mass, the priest nonetheless wears a chasuble, the garment of the wedding banquet of the Lamb. The day is not a collective funeral, but a solemn celebration. The passion is read from the Fourth Gospel, for which the Cross is Jesus’ ‘hour’, the moment where he reigns in triumph, and over which he is sublimely in control. Without the raw humanity of the synoptics the impression we would get from this story would be at best misleading, at worse docetic. In combination, they capture the essence of the Christian faith. Whilst the wood of the Cross is venerated, the chants speak of the resurrection. On Holy Saturday, meanwhile, our waiting is punctuated with an account of the victorious Christ harrowing hell.

There is a converse to the subtle thread of good news running through these days. If the Risen Christ is already present in our commemoration of the passion, the resurrection does not undo the reality of Christ’s suffering, or the history (one hesitates to speak of ‘reality’) of sin. I find that the rites of the Easter Vigil show, in ways words could never say, how Christianity can dare to speak of hope in a world like ours. One of the first actions performed with the new paschal candle is to pierce it with incense grains in memory of Christ’s wounds. The exsultet sings of the slaying of Christ the paschal lamb, and is prepared to talk of the felix culpa that brought this about: yet the tone is festal. And this is as it should be, the Risen Christ still has his wounds.

Death is indeed swallowed up in victory, but the scars remain.



I spent yesterday at the Las Casas Institute conference A Poor Church for the PoorIt was an excellent, thought-provoking event. Hopefully recordings of the talks will be available at some point. Time at the event was divided between plenary sessions and a variety of afternoon session based around group discussion of a topic. I went to a group on Catholic Social Teaching. To make the issue more concrete, we were looking at the question “Food Banks: Charity or Injustice?” Well, I don’t think food banks are an injustice, but I certainly think that they are a sign of injustice. And the question might arise whether in going along with them, we are tacitly helping to perpetuate that injustice.

“Justice, not charity” is a slogan I’ve heard more than once. In recent years, under the auspices of the Big Society, collective provision of services on the basis of needs has been cut back in favour of uneven, local, and voluntary alternatives. This might well play into the suggestion that there is a tension between efforts for social change and charity, in the everyday English sense of the word ‘charity’. This is no bad thing, since there clearly a tension between efforts for social change and immediate work to alleviate suffering, at least to the extent that all of us have only a finite amount of time and energy. If I spend my spare time campaigning against cuts to a local hospital, I can’t also spend that time laying on a meal for the homeless. But now there’s an apparent problem: what we do during Lent under the auspices of ‘almsgiving’ falls broadly under the heading of charity. Is our almsgiving incompatible with fighting for a better world?

McCabe’s wonderful catechism tells us that whilst it is good to alleviate suffering, it is better to do away with suffering. This is clearly right; the virtue of caritas (‘charity’ in an older, theological, sense) involves love of our fellow human beings for the sake of God. When I love someone, I will their good. And it is not good for someone to be kept radicallydependent on my gifts when they could be provided with their needs in a more secure and equal fashion. It follows that charity demands that I ensure my neighbours can flourish in a fashion that is not radically dependent. This, of course, is not the same thing as complete independence, something that is humanly impossible, capitalist ideologues notwithstanding). Anyone who thinks that this will not involve radical social change might find their outlook challenged were they to leave their house from time to time. As Terry Eagleton once put the point, ‘The most blatantly naïve form of idealism is not socialism, but the belief that, given enough time, capitalism will feed the world. Just how long do you let such a view run before judging it discredited?’

Yet there’s something troubling about the enthusiastic activist. I do not mean the, undoubtedly disturbing, phenomenon of people enjoying activism, failing to realise that social movements exist, as does the Church from a longer-term perspective, only for the sake of a day when they are no longer necessary. Instead, a few decades of engaging in left-wing activism – an engagement which is ongoing – leave me fearful of the monomaniacal political animal, for whom the cause is everything. The human beings, whose fulfilment is the ultimate point of all the activity, vanish from view as the urgency of the latest campaign or event takes centre stage. The end justifies the mean, and in the meanwhile there is no time for sentiment. What is missing here is a sense of something Catholic Social Teaching has insisted upon, the dignity of the human person. This is similarly absent in the attitude towards political opponents. Do not confuse matters here; conflict, struggle, is a necessary part of political engagement in an unjust world. The challenge is to still see the humanity, even whilst fighting.

It’s here that I think the discipline of almsgiving is helpful. In giving, we acknowledge the here-and-now humanity of those in need. Giving, I think, means more than giving money in a general way to an organisation (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It really ought to be a giving of self. I think it’s better to give food, money, or whatever to someone face to face, and to give ourselves in friendship, conversation, and so on. Unless we have these kind of things in our life there’s a real danger of becoming hardened. I struggle with them, and find Lent a helpful annual reminder.

Justice or charity? I think the two are complementary. Activism without giving becomes inhuman. Giving without activism becomes a cover for injustice. Although I don’t agree with the Catholic Worker movement on everything (in particular, pacifism), I like what this guy says about resistance and works of mercy: