Saturday Night Fervour

This article by Don Cupitt originally appeared in the Guardian's 'Face to Faith' series, Saturday April 3, 1999

Provided that you do not visit sweetshops, you could live in Britain nowadays and be unaware that what is called 'the Easter weekend' has come and gone. You couldn't say that about Christmas. If you want to avoid Christmas, you will have to go abroad after thinking carefully about which bits of abroad remain Christmas-proof. There aren't that many left. During the past two centuries Christmas has grown and grown, while Good Friday and Easter have declined.

That is odd, because the story of the last days and the death of Jesus is the historic core of Christianity. The Nativity is described in only two gospels, where it is incidental to the main story, and it plays little part in the New Testament as a whole; whereas the Passion narrative occupies about a quarter of each gospel, and is the only large-scale continuous narrative they contain.

But most people turn away from it. Why? The themes are not exactly strange to 20th century people: the persecuted Jew, the individual victim of state power, the suddenness with which a cheering crowd can turn and start to bay for blood, the tears of women. We know about those things, don't we—just look this week in Kosovo and elsewhere.

Yes, but post-modernity in the West is increasingly an entertainment culture. We are highly reflexive, and we like everything double—humour, parody, satire, jokes, black comedy and so on. But straight seriousness we do not like. We like feel-good religion, religion for children, but we do not want close-up contact with the grown-up stuff. If we are humanitarians, we are so by proxy: we saw the pictures on television, and so we write a cheque to help somebody else do something. We are nimbies about suffering; we do something about it at second-hand in the hope of preventing it from coming too close to us personally.

Increasingly, we fight our wars at long range, too. We see pictures of 'our' aircraft taking off to pound faraway places and teach 'them' a lesson, while our politicians assure us that it is not going to come any closer to us than that, because foot soldiers will not be involved.

No wonder, then, that we shrink from Good Friday. It demands our close moral and even emotional self-identification with a gruesome death. The fullest and most intense experience of life is enjoyed by those who have looked death in the face and have come to terms with it. Yes, yes, we say - but not just yet, thank you. I'll get round to it later, nearer the time.

Many people say that what really puts them off is the popular Protestant theology that portrays Christ as voluntarily offering himself as an innocent victim, who bears the punishment for our sins and thereby placates God and restores us to favour. People think the transaction between God the Father and God the Son that this doctrine describes is weird, and I agree. They find the talk about eating Christ's body and drinking his blood repugnant, and maybe they have a point. There is something archaic, even barbaric, at the core of Christianity, and it will not be easy to get rid of it.

Perhaps we shouldn't try: it is noticeable that in 20th-century art painters who wouldn't touch the Nativity as a subject—painters who are in some cases declared atheists, like Francis Bacon—still draw heavily upon the Crucifixion. (Stanley Spencer, by the way, was a very heterodox sort of Christian, whose work covered almost the whole range of subjects from the life of Christ, but I think he never painted a Nativity). It is marginal—whereas Good Friday, Holy Saturday and hopes of re-birth have been central to 20th-century experience, even for atheists.

The key period was the 20th century's Holy Saturday, the period around 1945, just after the European war. The Nazi catastrophe had left central Europe in a condition of utter spiritual darkness and devastation. Heidegger called it a world-midnight, saying that the only thing possible was to wait patiently in the darkness for dawn to come. The metaphor of waiting was used by others: Beckett produced Waiting For Godot, and Simone Weil's Waiting Upon God was published posthumously.

Holy Saturday is a day for atheists: it is the day on which God has died, Christ's soul is in the underworld, 'harrowing hell', and the Earth lies bereft. It has been marked in the Latin Church by the service of Tenebrae, during which all the candles in church are extinguished one by one, until the service ends with the recitation of the Miserere, Psalm 51, in total darkness.

This is a reminder that Christianity is not just a simple, positive ideology to be either accepted or rejected. It is a whole, symbolic world, which includes its own self-cancellation within itself. You will never wholly escape it, because you can't find its outside. There is no place, however dark, where it hasn't been before you.