THE setting for the last days of Jesus Christ is a small area. A series of short walks. Every evening in the week before his death, he walked across the brook Kidron which runs through a little ravine just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Nearby was the municipal rubbish tip, a heap of smouldering household waste called Gehenna – the word translated in the New Testament as hell. It was always smoking and the Jerusalem women complained it dirtied their washing. From the top of the Mount of Olives – really just a hill – Jesus walked the mile-and-a half to Bethany, to sleep at the house of Martha and Lazarus. It was from there that he returned next morning, entered the temple and drove out those who ran the racket in sacrificial animals.
Halfway down the Mount of Olives is the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s still there. I went into it. I was going to say idly, You can’t believe it. But oh yes, you can believe it. And not just believe it but see it and feel it. The gnarled olive trees where Jesus prayed and sweated blood on the night that he was betrayed. You look down from Gethsemane towards the city from where the temple police came with their torches, swords and staves to arrest the Prince of Life. In the Old City there are the remains of the steps to the High Priest’s house where they frog-marched him in the early hours of Good Friday. The path from there to Pontius Pilate’s palace is a three-minute stroll.
How about this for irony? The Via Dolorosa is a one-way street. It’s often a crowded, rowdy, good-natured Arab market. You remember the bit in the gospel where it says that the Roman soldiers cast lots for his vesture? Here you can still see the marks carved in the pavement which formed, as it were, the board on which the soldiers played their gambling game while, bored sick, they waited for their crucified victims to die. On the site of the crucifixion there stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, gloomy and neglected. There are three altars as a testament to the divisions in the church which Our Lord prayed should be one: the Catholics, the Protestants and the Orthodox. They can’t get on among themselves, so the key to the Holy Sepulchre used to be held by a Muslim and his family who live round the corner.
It’s strange, you know. Usually when you actually visit a notable place you’ve heard of for a long time, it’s quite different from what you expected. But, for me anyway, the scene of Our Lord’s passion and death in and around Jerusalem is just what I’d always imagined from Sunday School. Years later, when I’d long left behind the wholesome influences of Sunday School and found myself deposited in the university department of theology, clever men, stuffed with historical detail and myriad variant readings of the biblical texts, sought to explain to me what Christ’s passion and death meant. But cleverness doesn’t amount to much. As C H Sisson says in his poem about the Dean of St Paul’s, literary superstar and rampant womaniser John Donne:
Your cleverness is dismissed from the suit;
Come down and speak to the men of ability
On the Sevenoaks platform and tell them
That the faith
Is not exclusive in the fools it chooses;
That the vain, the ambitious and the highly sexed
Are the natural prey of the incarnate Christ.
The story of the last week in the life of Jesus hangs in your mind like the indelible memory of a formative dream, like a tune you can’t forget. Well, yes, Bach and O Sacred Head Surrounded by Crown of Piercing Thorns. It’s as if you were there when they crucified Our Lord. And who’s to say you weren’t? You don’t have to travel to Jerusalem. The story of his passion and death is burnt into the English landscape and the cold springtime. Winter’s last harshness, the sharp showers and the squalls – sometimes hailstones. And when the sun breaks through it’s warm. There might be a mellowing,
All in the April Evening. Those of us brought up in the North remember new lambs and the clouds’ shadows racing over limestone hillsides. Hot cross buns. In the 1950s in Leeds, all the factories closed on Good Friday. You looked out over the field in front of Armley jail – as kids we called it the jaily – and the silence looked back at you.
One year the curate got the funny idea that Frank Windross, the local carpenter, should carry a cross through the streets; that we should stop on the corners, the gospel readings fading on the wind and people in overcoats singing There is a Green Hill outside a city wall. Outside Ledgard’s bus station, more like, by the bug-hutch picture house, just below Armley library. Over the whole scene the black steeple of St Bartholomew’s dominating the parish like a Victorian grandparent. O dearly, dearly has he loved . . . He died that we might be forgiven . . .
Our religion is part of the landscape and there are holy things. Since the Incarnation, the whole world is sacramental, charged with the grandeur of God. English people, in particular, have known this and have been possessed by it for hundreds of years. In the village churches, the stone-carvings of him on the cross, the loud readings of his passion were internalised in people’s hearts and their suffering was identified with his. Psychology is not new. God with us. See we die with the dying . . . we are born with the dead . . . For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.
In the parish churches during the late Middle Ages, they lived his passion. The Holy Week crucifix held a monstrance and in it was set the Blessed Sacrament. Before it the people came on hands and knees. Creeping to the Cross. Not superstition but men and women, children, making the passion of Christ their own. Could ye not watch with me one hour? At nightfall in Holy Week, at Tenebrae, the candles snuffed out in turn until the church was in utter darkness – to show how the disciples forsook him, one by one.
People brought sticks and pieces of string and fashioned themselves little crosses during the singing of the Passion: Jesus by the bass, the gospeller a tenor and the crowd alto. The stripping of the altar was Christ’s stripping: My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me? The scouring of the altar with a broom of stiff twigs was his scourging. On Maundy Thursday the priest omitted to give the Kiss of Peace because Jesus was betrayed with the kiss of Judas Iscariot, the crooked accountant and dagger man.
During the reading of the St John Passion, a linen cloth was laid on the altar and silently separated by the Parish Clerk at the words They parted my garments. The priest took off his Mass vestments and put on a plain white surplice. He took the Host, the body of Christ, and buried it in a sepulchre built on the north side of the chancel. It was not an idle show, but a performance.
Performances are what we do when we are most serious – for to perform something is to make it happen, heartfelt: I baptise thee . . . I love thee . . . with this ring I thee wed . . . ashes to ashes . . . they laid him in a sepulchre . . .