The Easter story and May Day are spring festivals that celebrate life against death, the struggle for humanity.
Even on dark winter mornings when we were children my father used to come upstairs and bellow: ‘Rise and shine!’ Not without the occasional grumble, we would get dressed and go out to help feed the animals before breakfast. Now he is long dead, when I wake up and hear the birds, see the sun pouring in through my window, especially since the mornings have been getting lighter, I feel so grateful for another day, another chance, another spring.
I’m writing this in early April just after Easter. In Regent’s Park the robin is singing, the sticky horse chestnut buds have burst and the leaves push out, at first downwards, then fanning out like an open hand. Now the chunky flower-candles are appearing. There’s a huge old pear tree in St John’s Garden. Any day now its ‘leaves and blooms’ will ‘brush/ the descending blue; that blue is all in a rush/ with richness...’ What is all this juice and all this joy? Hopkins replies: ‘a strain of Earth’s sweet being in the beginning/ in Eden Garden.’ But as well as looking back there is a looking forward, a feeling of expectation. Earth’s beauty aches. There is a sense of ludicrous contradiction in gazing at those glorious trees and then walking out into the street to see homeless beggars lying on the pavement or people being abused and degraded by grinning young soldiers on television. The whole creation (Rom. 8:19) is ‘groaning in labour’ waiting with eager longing for ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God’. ‘And not only creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit, groan inwardly’, hoping for what we do not yet see.
Giles Hibbert’s article Easter, the Feast of Liberation rejects Easter as a ‘conjuring trick with bones’ and explores it as a spring festival, the day of light, that proclaims the liberation of all from slavery. ‘The Resurrection,’ he writes, ‘is presented as occurring on the first day of the week – on Sunday – , that day on which, according to the “creation narrative”, God said: “Let there be light!”
Rising to new life like the Earth in spring, Christ, ‘the firstborn from the dead’, inaugurates a new humanity to fulfil the promise of Earth’s yearning ‘flowersong’, to bring justice (‘the kingdom and its justice’) on Earth. This is the ‘realised eschatology’ of love in action. ‘The Son of God became human so that we might become God,’ wrote Athanasius in about 325. In the Resurrection story, God ‘empties himself’ in death on the cross. Christ rises as the first sprout of the new humanity with another chance to ‘redeem itself’. We created God, projecting onto him our ideals of human possibility for love and justice. In Christ we reclaim them as human. ‘God,’ says the Nicaraguan priest Uriel Molina, ‘does not say “I am” but “I will be” (an ‘emergent property’, as Anthony Freeman put it). And the Creed of the Nicaraguan Misa campesina (written in Solentiname – the primitive painting of the Resurrection painted there is on the front cover), describes Christ’s resurrection as an ongoing process in the continuing struggle for justice – not just in the present tense but the present continuous: ‘vos estás resucitando: ‘you’re rising again’.
In the second article in this issue, John Gamlin writes about energy. (Energy, says Blake, is eternal delight.) Energy is physical. Energy is real. ‘No concept,’ Gamlin writes, ‘would form into absolutely everything we sense and experience, nor be the difference between something and nothing. For without the presence of energy there is just – nothing.’ He goes on to consider the trinity: energy, life and spirit as different aspects of the same thing.
In a similar vein, I was thinking about the traditional dualistic division of love into eros – sexual love – and agape – kindness. Of course, raw energy can express itself in violence and killing and sex can be exploitative. Nevertheless, I don’t think we should deny the kind of beings we are – intelligent mammals – and just as the trinity of energy, life and spirit can be regarded as ‘different aspects of the same thing’, so can the pair eros and agape. The same tits are enjoyed in their own ways by a lover and an infant, and are the vehicle for our agapeistic metaphor ‘the milk of human kindness’. Eros and agape often go together in all sorts of combinations ‘because we are so mixed.’ For example, the Nicaraguan Revolution also produced countless love poems (see further pages 22-3).
A certain demonisation of sexuality – particularly male sexuality – seems to be fashionable at the moment. But surely the paschal candle itself, that rises and shines, is a phallic symbol. It is also physical, praised in the Exultet at the Easter Vigil as ‘wax formed by the mother bee for the substance of this precious candle’. And in the gladness of May, the Maypole is another celebration of sexuality and fertility; it has even been suggested that the Maypole dance of interweaving ribbons is a representation of the double helical DNA! May Day is also the workers’ holiday that looks forward to a fairer world. As William Morris said:
Certainly May Day is above all days of the year fitting for the protest of the disinherited against the system of robbery that shuts the door betwixt them and a decent life; the day when the promise of the year reproaches the waste inseparable from the society of inequality
Or in his poem The Pilgrims of Hope sex and the struggle for justice intermingle:
But lo, the old inn and the lights and the fire,
And the fiddler’s old tune and the shuffling of feet;
Soon for us shall be quiet and rest and desire,
And tomorrow’s uprising to deeds shall be sweet.
But poor William Morris! He does not seem to have had much luck in his marriage; his wife Janey was notoriously unfaithful.
Unlike the Stygian tube, travelling on a good-tempered London bus can be a pleasure. (Incidentally, before the outbreak of the Iraq war, a red London bus carried the ‘human shields’ to Baghdad.) Londoners, who collectively speak more than 300 languages, are very quick on the uptake and may greet all kinds of eccentric behaviour with an amused, gentle, ‘seen it all’ smile that spreads round the bus like the sun coming out. Unfortunately, the bus conductress on the number 24, who regularly sang opera to music-hall from Hampstead to the House of Commons, seems to have retired with the Routemasters, but the other day I was on a 29 bus going to Finsbury Park and four young men were joshing in a language unknown to me. I asked the one sitting next to me: ‘What language is that?’ He replied: Arabic. I said: ‘Sounds as if it’s got a lot of ...’ – and I produced a velar fricative as at the end of the Scottish word ‘loch’. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and a lot of ...’– and he made a sound like ‘shtum’, gave me a delighted, friendly smile, then went on speaking his language with his mates. As well as feeling –what might be called –‘agapeistic’ disgust at some of our electioneering politicians’ scaremongering rhetoric against immigrants, I noticed the beautiful shape of his head and the way his hair sprang back from his brow. Of course, as a respectable granny now, I refrained from patting it, in case he thought I was a daft old bat. But there was that sparkle and we both enjoyed the small exchange.
Recently, Jon Snow hosted a television vote on the New Ten Commandments. The results were blessedly secular (might they have been different in the US?) and the number 1 winner was the ‘Golden Rule’, which Snow pointed out occurs in some form in most religions: ‘Treat others as you would have them treat you.’ Though God has gone, no love, even ‘religious’ love, is objectless. Jesus tells us to ‘love one another’, love our neighbours, love our enemies.
The Entry Song to the Misa campesina, mentioned above, begins: ‘You are the God of the poor/the down-to-earth, human God.’ It continues:
You eat out rough in the park
with Eusebio, Pancho and Juan Jose
and when there isn’t much honey,
you complain that the syrup is thin.
I’ve seen you at a street stall
and in the corner shop,
seen you touting lottery tickets
without being ashamed of your job...
This, of course, is a version of Matthew 25: 35: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me...’
In Piers Plowman after dying on Good Friday, Christ descends into Hell and challenges the ‘Doctor of Death’ at its Gates:
I that am Lord of Life, love is my drink
and for that drink today I died upon Earth.
challenges the ‘doctors of death’, even if it means laying down your life. For example, when Oscar Romero preached a sermon: ‘I beg you, I beseech you, I order you: Stop the killing!’ he was shot dead within the week at Mass in his own cathedral.
Dying for life, ‘the Lord of Life who died reigns alive.’ Easter is the story of life against death, the struggle for humanity. The Easter story glorifies the body, the human form divine. It says Respect the body , everybody, each individual, and the Earth herself, the body to which we all belong.