Tag Archives: Easter

The Easter Mystery

Over the last few years, the Meaningful Chocolate Company has been selling what it calls the Real Easter Egg.  There are a number of features of this egg that set it apart from the others on the market.  First of all, it’s made with FairTrade chocolate.  This means that the people who grow the cocoa beans are being paid a fair wage for their labour.  Furthermore, their communities are being helped because the proceeds of a small premium added to the price of each egg are spent on a community project like a school or a well.  There are other FairTrade eggs, of course, but this is a good selling point for anyone with a conscience.

Secondly, a percentage of the profit is given to charity.  This is very rare, if not completely unique.  From egg sales since 2011, the company has donated over £40,000 to different worthy causes.  For a start, there are regular gifts to Traidcraft Exchange, a development charity which helps small-scale farmers and producers all over the world.  In addition to this, money has been given to Baby Lifeline, The Leprosy Mission, and Christians Against Poverty.  This latter organisation is a national charity working across the UK to lift people out of debt and poverty, offering free debt counselling through a network of 252 debt centres based in local churches.  You might like to know that Christ Church Ware is one of those churches – help really is “at hand” in these financially troubling times.  Buying a Real Easter Egg really does produce all kinds of ripples of good in this country and overseas.

But the third aspect is what makes this egg the Real Easter Egg; it has the Easter story on or in the box.  The company’s founder wrote recently, “When we first revealed the Real Easter Egg, I was asked by a journalist, ‘What’s Easter got to do with the church?’ I had to explain that Easter is in fact a religious festival and not owned by Cadbury!  This year, The Real Easter Egg radio advert was rejected by the radio authority.  They seemed unsure if Easter was Christian and so wanted our advert to say that our eggs had a copy of the ‘Easter Christian story’ in the box.  We argued the point and they have decided that, ‘on balance’, Easter is a well-known Christian festival.” 

But it’s less well known than it was.  In March 2005, the Daily Mail reported that just 48% of British people questioned said that Easter was about the Resurrection of Christ.  Two years later, on 3rd April 2007, a press release from Somerfield supermarket declared, “Brits will on average be enjoying over 3.5 eggs each over the Easter weekend alone.  But over a quarter don’t know why handing them out symbolises the birth of Jesus…” (My emphasis)  This was later corrected to read ‘the rebirth’ of Christ, and then, after consultation with the Church of England, a third version correctly identified that Easter celebrated the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

There’s no doubt about it; ignorance of the world-changing story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is increasing in what has historically been recognised as a Christian country.  Will you be celebrating it this year?  What example does your practice set to your children and grandchildren?  There are plenty of church events, and everyone is most welcome…

God Willing

In an earlier entry I wrote about the song “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” and its underlying assumption that the world is governed by “The Fates.”  (“Through the years we all will be together, if the Fates allow.”)  In writing it I discovered that the words “if the Fates allow” were actually a replacement for “if the Lord allows.”  This brings a whole new angle to the debate, especially in the light of the change that we are seeing from Christendom’s BC and AD to the post-Christendom BCE and CE.  Originally, the song emanated from a Christian worldview, but the lyrics were changed to eliminate the Christian dimension because some people felt it was offensive.  And maybe it is offensive to some; the idea that “the Lord” might not allow something we hold dear.  Let us see…

Christians understand “the Lord” is the God of the Bible, variously described, including Jonah’s phrase, “The God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9) and God’s own words recorded by the prophet Isaiah (46:9), “I am God and there is no other.”  Being humble before such authority is surely entirely appropriate.  In the Bible book which bears his name, James (who describes himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”) encourages his readers to be humble before God and chastises them for being arrogant in their boastful planning.  He writes, “What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” (Jas 4:14-15).  It is from him that we get the phrase, “God-willing,” and it is this idea which is being expressed in the original lyrics of the song.

Of course, we don’t hear people say, “God-willing” as much today as was once the case.  This almost certainly says something about our society and is entirely in keeping with the change from AD to CE.  Like the people to whom James was writing, we have grown proud, believing ourselves to be masters of our own destiny; we rely not on God, but on our money, our talents, our connections or our reputation to open doors for us and provide us with our every need.  In our so-called enlightened society, The-God-of-heaven-who-made-the-sea-and-the-dry-land has become at best an after-thought, and at worst, a swear-word.  We behave, not as servants of God like James, but as if we were gods ourselves – with the right to do just as we please.  No wonder we find offensive the idea that “the Lord” might stand in our way and confound our plans.  How dare he?  Just who does he think he is?

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus to Mary; a child born of a virgin, exiled to Egypt and raised by his adoptive father in the line of King David.  He made the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame leap.  Powerful men plotted against him, a friend betrayed him and false witnesses accused him.  Soldiers gambled for his clothes, he was mocked, beaten and crucified, though not one of his bones was broken.  Buried, he was raised to life on the third day.  All of this was prophesied in advance through the word of God.  Who then is the Lord?  He is the one who knows the end from the beginning, so we should approach him in great humility.  Yet Christmas also shows that He loves us deeply: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) – good news indeed, even for arrogant hearts!

Melvyn Bragg Wide of the Mark

I learned something new on Good Friday; Melvyn Bragg wrote the screenplay for the Rice/Lloyd-Webber Musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  According to Lord Bragg, adapting that theatrical piece for the big screen proved to be the start of a fascination with Mary Magdalene; a fascination which would eventually produce a documentary to air at 12 noon on Good Friday, the BBC’s flagship “Religious” programme for the 2013 Easter season.

I had been warned in advance that the show would be screened at that time (to coincide with Jesus’ crucifixion?) and encouraged to watch.  So I did.  In the end I was probably less offended than I had prepared myself to be, but I did watch the closing titles with sadness of heart.  The BBC had used its prime-time slot at Easter to present a fanciful alternative to the Christian message rather than something more factual or something that might help people to reflect upon the central figure of Christianity; Jesus the Christ.  Melvyn Bragg was wide of the mark.

To his credit, Lord Bragg was honest about the limited scope of the Biblical evidence about Mary Magdalene.  He was even happy to admit that her status as the first witness of the resurrected Christ (some have dubbed her “the apostle to the apostles”) gives added weight to the veracity of the resurrection accounts – in those days, the testimony of a woman was not regarded as having any value, so the fact that she is mentioned in this light points to the truth of the matter (nobody would make it up!).  But most of the programme was about other things.

First, there was the way the church of later centuries treated Mary Magdalene.  Bragg spoke of the way that the senior and influential figures in the church confused and merged different women in the Gospel accounts together as “Mary” in such a way that she could be presented as a strong example of a penitent sinner.  The church was presented as “wrong” on this matter.  (I don’t disagree with this verdict, but it is painful to hear nonetheless, because no distinction was made between the failures of the early church and the state of the church today; what the audience heard was “The church was/is wrong.”)

Second, there was the uncritical appeal to the minority report of the Nag Hamadi texts – literature from the “Gnostic” sect of Christianity which was around from the end of the 1st century and which believed a very different message to orthodox Christianity as we know it today (or as we find in the letters of Paul and the rest of the New Testament).  Predictably, Bragg highlighted the one fragment of a text in which Jesus is reported to have favoured Mary above the other disciples and “kissed her on the mouth often,” but, regrettably, though one of the scholars did admit we could not be sure what such kisses really meant, none of them identified that the fragment is actually damaged just where the word “mouth” would be.  The real issue is not that we don’t know what a kiss on the mouth might have meant in those days, but rather that we don’t even know what the text really says!  Of course, the real issue is of no interest to the programme makers; they just want something sensational to interest the public.

Strikingly, Bragg promoted the view that ancient documents (again, without qualifying this at all) suggest strongly that Mary Magdalene was “Jesus’ lover, or even his wife.”  I confess I found this most bizarre; that Lord Bragg should find it somehow of more concern that Mary be Jesus’ wife than his [unmarried] lover!  Of course, the evidence for such a relationship is virtually non-existent and the hints come only from late, scarce and unreliable sources; the silence of the canonical Gospels on this matter actually speaks a far more authoritative word.  However, the TV audience just heard that she “might have been” (in context “probably was”) his lover… and the reputation of both Jesus and his church is tarnished once again.

Third, a significant assumption made popular by Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code” were repeated.  This was that the Gnostic “Gospels” were written as early as the four Gospels we have in the Bible.  Reputable scholars suggest this is highly unlikely – suggesting the origin of the Gnostic material is almost certainly a century or so later.  Similarly, the programme promoted the view that the Emperor Constantine was instrumental in choosing the books that would officially become parts of the Christian Bible so that they would convey the message he wished others to hear rather than the “truth”.  The real way the books of the New Testament were chosen by and authorised for use in church gatherings is much more complicated (but this doesn’t make such controversial television!).

Fourth, and connected with this, Constantine’s suppression of certain branches of the church (Lord Bragg called them “Christians” without qualification) was connected with the suppression of women; the outlawed Gnostics seemed to allow women to rise to positions of leadership, and, of course, this would never do.  Thus Bragg neatly linked ancient history to an issue which is currently proving difficult for the church – “Things might have been so different,” he mused.

All in all I guess I found the programme most disappointing because of the thread running through the programme that “the church was/is wrong”; wrong about Mary’s identity, wrong to exclude the heretical Gnostic texts, wrong to hide Jesus’ alleged affair with Mary, wrong to take the view it did on women in leadership.  There was a sense in which the programme presented Lord Bragg as “finally, a sensible voice!” on these matters, unearthing secrets the church would rather stay hidden.  He made some sensible conclusions (like him, I do not believe that Mary Magdalene was sent off in a rudderless boat, ended up in France and performed a miracle by praying that the wife of a local prince might conceive a child).  But in his quest for a sensational story, he literally went all over the place, up every dead end street drawing attention to all manner of false beliefs and raising all kinds of false hopes.

What a shame he didn’t settle for the most sensational news of all time; the news which Mary Magdalene herself encountered and shared – that Jesus Christ is risen from the grave; that death is defeated, and that forgiveness of sins is freely given in his name to all who will believe.  Now that would have been an appropriate programme for the Easter season!