Reflections for Lent & Easter-tide
Introduced by Arthur Wells
If a publication is to consider itself mainstream Catholic and ecumenical, as this Vatican II website does, the great events of Christmas and Easter must be major influences, always near to mind and shared. As this is published, we are in Lent and Easter is close. The major twin pillars of Vatican II’s sixteen documents are widely considered to be on Scripture (Dei Verbum) and on the Church (Lumen Gentium). In their different ways they derive specifically from the Gospels, as debated in depth by the Council fathers - receiving overwhelming approval - and promulgated by Pope Paul VI.
A century before the Council, the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote of creation being smeared with mankind’s mess. It prompts the question: whether human beings have smeared the Church since its early years. The answer must be that it often has. Most of the great men who were fathers of the Council agreed that once again, reform was needed. The teachings of Vatican II were intended to repair the inevitable taint of human influence in order to maintain the message of Calvary and Easter Day. An important book by the senior Dominican Albert Nolan OP, called “Jesus before Christianity” reflected this unease about human taint. Fr. Nolan’s concern - here perhaps simplistically expressed - was that the original message of the life and death of Jesus was better followed in the two to three centuries after the Resurrection than in many periods following the Edict of Milan. There, in 313 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine determined the toleration of Christianity. Shortly after Milan, Christianity became the state religion of the Empire. From then on, in varying degrees and stages, the Church took on many secular aspects of the state which thus became autocratic and which, in the Church, have long outlived the Roman Empire. Vatican II attempted yet again the separation of what is truly faith and non-negotiable, from what is accretion. A constant concern from the responses posted so far and those received, but not posted yet, is the disparity between the documents, along with the contemporary writings of the Council fathers and much of what is currently taught from the centre.
But at Easter, at the Resurrection of the Lord, further additions to our series on concerns about the Church today would be inappropriate. Rather, to mark Good Friday and Easter Day, the importance of which we share with other Christians, we offer two poems: the first from a modern Scot (from Orkney), relevant to Lent and Good Friday, and the second written around Eastertide by a renowned Victorian poet. The English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, a contemporary of Newman, wrote ‘God’s Grandeur’ in February and March 1877 approaching Easter time. The poem is appropriate to Creation as a whole, but also to Easter and it looks forward to Pentecost. First, George Mackay Brown on Calvary as felt though the eyes of the good thief:
Stations of the Cross: The Good Thief
The cold Roman eye, hand on seal.
Vale. Take the thief away.
‘You carry your own tree, Jimmy…’
Another gallowsbird behind.
One ahead, burdened, a bruised brightness.
I’ve carried millstones, wine-vats, a mast.
That one was a carpenter.
His knees buckle under the heavy baulk.
My mother, poor woman, is dead.
His mother is here. Poor woman. Poor woman.
Look, Simon’s come into town
With an ox to sell.
They’ve laid another yoke on Simon.
Veronica, seamstress. No napkin ever
Soaked up such blood and sweat.
I stagger but I don’t fall.
The sneak-thief plods like a mule.
The bright one, he’s down again.
Those women! Miriam, Judith, Esther
Go home, sing over your cradles.
Sing among looms and pots.
Below, cornfields and vineyards.
A third time, fallen.
He tastes golden dust.
The soldiers won’t bother, I think,
Haggling over my coat.
No scarecrow would wear a rag like that.
Silence – curses – from cross and cross.
From the mid-ark
A dove wings out into the blackest storm.
Thrust of lance into heart-root.
The soldiers are coming with mallets
To break the legs of the thieves.
The eyes of the mother
Drown all the world in pity and love.
The hammer beats on my knee.
That the hands of such a woman
Fold me gravewards.
Bear me and all men in her folds of light.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.