When I was a child before I believed in God I was told Bible stories; I was given picture books featuring the life of Our Lord and made to sing hymns. None of this moved me in the slightest except in the direction of boredom. I felt repelled by the whole business, particularly by the pictures which showed a man with a beard and striped garment surrounded by sheep and goats and the sort of children I would have gone to some lengths to avoid: children in modern dress, looking virtuous and listening eagerly to a grown up.
Nor was I interested in the bearded man who was persistently described as meek and mild, qualities which hold little academic appeal for the young who prefer something more robust. If we had heroes, that is people whom we wished to emulate, they were King Arthur, Robin Hood or the naughtiest girl in the school. I sometimes wonder whether it’s possible to teach Christianity to the young at all — I am not even sure at what age, if ever, they make the connection between the baby who is responsible for all the jollity of Christmas and the man who died for our sins. It was just as boring when I went on to my Protestant grammar school and was subjected to scripture lessons of which I remember little since they were dull.
It never occurred to me that the Bible could be read as a story since the ministers and teachers presented it as a duty, to be attended to on Sundays — the most boring day of the week when good Welsh village children were not encouraged (and in some cases forbidden) to play. The days of the famous preachers had passed, men who could hold a congregation in thrall by the contents of the Bible as though they had happened only yesterday, just over the hill among people no different from themselves: farmers, shepherds, workmen, housewives. Now a glum decorum inherited from Victorian times prevailed in chapel and the proceedings were untainted by any hint of unseemly reality. For me the Bible stood alone, neither fiction nor fact, just a book which for some not readily available reason must be treated with awed respect — The Good Book, with an integral unquestioned existence of its own. There are still some fundamentalists who prize it above Christ Himself, who make of it an idol and the centre of their curious religious views.
Picture then my surprise when I found that I believed in God. I read the gospels and found a being quite unlike the bland creature of my childhood picture books: a man both strong and compassionate and infinitely subtle, far from incapable of rage and utterly extraordinary. My image of Christianity had changed. It was like that moment in development when you realize you can choose to mix with whoever you like and are no longer constrained by rules made by others. I could leave the respectable territory defined between the more salubrious sections of the Old Testament and the most humanly reasonable of the New and follow this man who was not only Jesus the Carpenter but Christ the King. And the more His godliness became evident so did His humanity become more interesting. You can spend a lot of time pondering the case of the barren fig tree and the incident that led to the naming of the Hill of Mary’s Fright. Not an easy man to live with: unconventional, unexpected, and therefore hard to describe.
Throughout the gospels we learn much about Him from the reactions of others, which were frequently unfavorable and consequently revealing also of the character and disposition of those others. This is a fairly under-used literary device: it has it uses but is not widely favored since it does not flatter the author who likes to be seen as in total control of his material, whether or not his characters are real or invented. The gospel writers were also up against a notorious literary difficulty, that of portraying perfect goodness. It is almost impossible to write convincingly of a good person without making the reader yawn or fill him with the desire to smack the aforesaid paragon. We have fixed and largely mistaken ideas of what true goodness consists in and tend to think of it as colorless and anodyne. No matter what we claim to the contrary we see it as negative and largely powerless in the face of evil, turning its cheek to the enemy and smirking foolishly. At present it is considered smart to deny and mock it in all its manifestations: a dangerously shortsighted view though understandable in the light of the behavior of certain groups who lay claim to it. Exaggerated signs of virtue and rejoicing look both ridiculous and unconvincing, striking the observer as uncalled for. There is in the figure of Jesus great dignity, an authority that does not lend itself to childish display.
The Gospels, the Good News, are not altogether joyful. The shadow of the Cross hangs over them and those who loved Him could not have delighted in His agony and death though He saved them from separation and damnation. It is the mixture of joy and unspeakable sorrow that makes this the strangest story in the world, the contrast of light and dark: the confusion of the disciples who could not quite understand their Lord. Even as they acknowledged Him as God they were disconcerted by the things He did and said. One day He told His disciples, “You know that after two days shall be the pasch; and the Son of Man shall be given up to be crucified.” St. Matthew does not record their response but goes on to describe how “. . . there were gathered together the chief priests and ancients of the people into the court of the High Priest who was called Caiaphas. And they consulted together that by subtlety they might apprehend Jesus and put Him to death.” The silence of the disciples here seems to imply that they were either unaware or unwilling to admit the end was near. St. John gives us their bewilderment in recorded speech. “Then some of His disciples said one to another: What is this that He saith to us: A little while and you shall not see Me; and again a little while and you shall see Me, and because I go to the Father? They said therefore what is this that He saith? A little while? We know not what He speaketh.”
Then when Jesus was in Bethania in the house of Simon the Leper, “There came to Him a woman having an alabaster box of precious ointment and poured it on His head as He was at table. And the disciples seeing it had indignation saying: To what purpose is this waste? For this might have been sold for much and given to the poor.” This sounds like a group of obedient but not very bright children saying what they thought their Master would like to hear. Jesus answered them by saying, “Why do you trouble this woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon Me. For the poor you always have with you; but Me you have not always. For she, in pouring this ointment upon My body hath done it for My burial.” Eleven doubtless faintly baffled disciples sat on, but the twelfth — for the wicked are often more quick to see than the good — realizing that the hour was coming, went to the chief priests and promised to betray Him.
After this, events, as they say, moved fast. Jesus sent the disciples to a certain man in the city (of whom I should like to know more) to say, “The Master saith, My time is near at hand. With thee I make the pasch with My disciples.” After the Last Supper was over with its bread and wine, the promise of salvation, and only Jesus and Judas fully aware of what was to come, they went out to Mount Olivet and Jesus spoke to Peter about the crowing of the cock and treachery. They walked on and came to a country place called Gethsemane where Jesus went aside to pray, talking with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and beginning to grow sorrowful and to be sad. He said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even unto death. Stay you here and watch with Me.” And going a little further He fell upon His face, praying and saying: “My Father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass from Me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Though wilt.” He came to Peter and found him asleep and said, “What? Could you not watch one hour with me? The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” For a second time He went and prayed, saying, “Father if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, Thy will be done.” Three times He found the disciples asleep and then said to them, “Sleep ye now and take your rest. Behold the hour is at hand and the Son of Man shall be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise and let us go. Behold he is at hand that will betray Me.” Then a great many men with swords and clubs and torches sent by the chief priests and ancients came with Judas, the wakeful one. He said, giving them a sign, “Whomsoever I shall kiss, that is He. Hold Him fast.” And forthwith coming to Jesus he said, “Hail, Rabbi,” and he kissed Him. And Jesus said to him, “Judas, dost thou betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” The disciples had not been staunch, but great as is the temptation to describe them as inadequate, their behavior testifies to the truth of the account, their humanity: anyone writing a work of fiction would surely have handled this scene differently with an eventual show of heroism. Only Peter, the impetuous, the reckless, cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant Malchus and then, losing his courage went on to deny his Lord thrice before the crowing of the cock.
When morning came the servants of the High Priest took Him before Pilate who is a sad character in this drama. More or less impartial and forced to conform to the will of people he found irrational and annoying, all he could do was wash his hands. The typical, universal bureaucratic reaction. The tragedy grows more intense and violent with the remorse of Judas who hanged himself with halter and was buried in the potter’s field, afterwards called the Field of Blood.
And Jesus was sentenced to death. “Now upon the solemn day the governor was accustomed to release to the people one prisoner, whom they would. The chief priests and the ancients persuaded the people that they should ask Barabbas and make Jesus away.” Pilate tried to save Him. They spoke together and Pilate went out and said to the people, “I find no cause in Him. But you have a custom that I should release one unto you at the pasch. Will you therefore that I release unto you the King of the Jews?” Then they cried all again saying, “Not this man but Barabbas.” Now Barabbas was a robber.
So the terrible sequence began while the people screamed, “Crucify Him, crucify Him.” Our Lord was scourged and stripped, “they put a scarlet cloak bout Him, and plating a crown of thorns they put it on His head and a reed in His right hand. And bowing the knew before Him they mocked Him saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews.'” They spat on Him and took the reed from His hand, they took the cloak and returned His garments and led Him away to be crucified. They made Him carry His cross to the place called Golgotha which is the place of Calvary. And they that passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, “Thou that destroyeth the Temple of God and in three days buildest it up again, save thyself.” In like manner also the chief priests, mocking, said with the scribes one to another, “He saved others: Himself He cannot save.” And as they led Him away they laid hold of one Simon of Cyrene, coming from the country and they laid the cross upon him to carry after Jesus.
So far there has been little to hear about the multitudes who had followed Him, the sufferers He had healed but they were there; the ordinary people, for, “Following Him was a great multitude and women who bewailed and lamented Him. But Jesus turning to them said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not over Me; but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold the days shall come wherein they will say ‘blessed are the barren and the wombs that have not borne and the paps that have not given suck.’ They shall they begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall upon us.’ And to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if in the green woods they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?” These are uncompromising words, the words of a king grieving for his people, not those of a gentle victim.
And they gave Him wine to drink mixed with gall. The sun shone down on the city of Jerusalem and the lovely hills, on the darkest scene in the world of hatred and blood and terror and the death of love. They divided His garments and cast lots upon them. Then, in St. Matthew, comes the terrible line, “And they sat and watched Him.” But His mother stood at the foot of the cross watching her Son die and after the agony of Jesus hers must have been the worst in all of time. I believe that on the cross Jesus saw quite clearly all the evil and cruelty that the people for whom He was dying would perpetrate on each other and felt the pain of all humanity, but I cannot imagine what Our Lady felt.
From the sixth until the ninth hour there was darkness over the whole earth when Jesus cried, “Eli, Eli, lamma sabachthani ” And some who stood there said, “This man calleth Elias.” And immediately one of them, running, took a sponge filled with vinegar and put it on a reed and gave Him to drink. And the others said, “Let be. Let us see whether Elias will come to deliver Him.” And Jesus again crying with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. The veil of the Temple was rent from top to bottom and the earth quaked, and those who had been watching Him were afraid.
The story might have ended there, on a note of vulgar and cruel curiosity and despair but all through the gospels were sown the seeds of hope, and there were promises to be fulfilled. He was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day He rose again. Even then His friends and disciples were of such little understanding that they would not believe; particularly Thomas the Doubter, who demanded proof and so perfectly represents too many of us. Still, perhaps we shall be forgiven saying, “Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.” For it is the most extraordinary story ever told.