This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Lent is coming to an end. Not just this year’s Lent, but the Lent which we have all been enduring since Mothering Sunday last year. Fasting from social interaction, from family, friends, pubs and restaurants, theatres and concerts — even, I’m told, the gym.
This Easter brings with it more than the usual optimism of spring and more than the yearly excitement caused by the resurrection of Christ. There is an echo of the whole Easter story in our national liberation. Not an allegory — a neat puzzle with a clear solution — but, as C.S. Lewis told his goddaughter, Lucy, of the Narnia stories, more like “a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place”.
We are not just emerging out of a year-long Lent, but also out of a global Good Friday. Many of us — maybe most of us — have seen someone we know suffer and, perhaps, die over the course of this pandemic. Death has been an ever-present companion in this last year, in the way we haven’t had to think of that great leveller since, probably, the Second World War.
It is not for nothing that the crucifixion and resurrection took place at Passover
As a people who do not like to think about, never mind talk about death, we have had to endure the chilling statistics of cases, hospitalisations, and deaths being repeated nightly on the news until, just recently, we scented a bloom of hope. A new statistic started to be noticed, the daily number of those being vaccinated, whose upward growth has proved to be the herald of the fall in those ghastly cases, hospitalisations, and death. Aslan was on the move.
But death has still had its victory. Over a hundred thousand in this country. The fear of death, for us or for those we love, drove us into this national year-long Lent, with all the psychological and economic chaos it has wrought. Now we are emerging and relearning the primitive enthusiasm of spring: the upturn in the cycle of death and new life, which will, in its turn, one day turn autumnal and die.
Yet with the smell of these newly-budded flowers comes the hint of the magic deeper yet: of Easter, and the news that the cycle can be broken, that death can be swallowed up in victory, that the agony of separation from those whom we love can be redeemed, eternally.
And redemption is another part of this story. It is not for nothing that the crucifixion and resurrection took place at Passover: the ancient festival marking the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Again it’s not a neat allegory: we have not been in slavery these last 12 months, but as we emerge, slowly — not over 40 years but four months — from the greatest withdrawal of British liberty in peacetime, there is the hint of the flower whose smell is of something we can’t quite place.
So we come to Easter, celebrated this year without the devastating fear of last year, without the retreat of the clergy behind their kitchen tables, but still without the gatherings of family and friends around a roast lamb that we might have enjoyed in previous years. (We still can’t even enjoy that privilege of lambs: a shearing. Barbers don’t reopen for another week.) But as we smell the blossom and hope for redemption, it is hugely important to realise what it is we long for in our freedom.
Our families and friends, most assuredly. Our freedoms, hard won by generations before us. The freedom not to mingle in fear of death.
But, perhaps, this year of death and deprivation should remind us of the greater liberation from fear that Easter involves: from the fear of death, and from the hopelessness of loss. This is the redemption we really need this year: not to be able to shop or drink or go to the gym without fear of death but . . . well, actually, yes to be able to shop, drink, go to the gym without fear of death but in a totally different way. Not because we have been able to eradicate the risk of death (although it is certainly good to be able to do that), but because the sting of death has been drawn. As John Donne put it,
One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
But this isn’t the place for a sermon. It’s really just a pensée as national liberation ties so neatly into Easter, and our national trauma of Lent and Good Friday are transformed by hope and we note, more strongly than in any year I’ve known, that flower whose smell reminds us of something we can’t quite place.
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