This is the text of my recent BBC Lent talk. Apologies, a bit of rogue highlighting has crept in for some reason. You will just have to imagine my Radio 4 voice.
As a novelist, I find it really annoying when other people tell me how to write. If it’s a copyeditor, I try to rein in my annoyance and address the list of queries I’ve been sent about my latest manuscript. I try not think, ‘Write your own book, if you’re so clever.’ One thing I am not prepared to tolerate, though, is Word’s grammar check, with its impertinent squiggly green underlining my prose. Fragment. Consider revising. I know it’s a fragment. I did it on purpose. For effect. Because I’m a writer.
Besides fragments, one of the things grammar check sets its pedantic face against is the use of passive verb forms. ‘Instead of “Catherine was hit by the ball”, consider “The ball hit Catherine”. Clearly, the sensible thing is for me to disable grammar check before the laptop is hit by Catherine, or—more properly—Catherine hits the laptop.
It turns out that no piece of prose, however venerable, escapes the vigilance of grammar check. Take these words from the Creed: ‘He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; Suffered under Pontius Pilate.’ For a livelier and more persuasive sentence, consider rewriting your sentence using an active verb! ‘The Holy Ghost conceived Jesus. The Virgin Mary gave birth to him. Pontius Pilate made him suffer and crucified him.’ But even if we do rewrite the Creed in this livelier and more persuasive style, there’s still no getting round the fact that Christ is passive here. He is the object of the sentence, not the subject; the one things are done to, not the one doing things.
This, of course, is what lies behind the church’s use of the word ‘Passiontide’ for the period before Easter. The church has been using this language for millennia. These days Christ’s ‘passion’ is taken to be a synonym for his ‘suffering’. And of course, it is—but only if we understand ‘suffering’ in the right way. Not pain and misery, so much as suffering in the sense of ‘being on the receiving end of’ something. Being passive, not active. The word has shifted meaning in English; as we can tell from that resonant but rather baffling phrase in the King James Bible, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me’. This means ‘let little children come’, allow it to happen, suffer it to happen. Rather than ‘little children are suffering’—which is what you might suppose it meant, if you judged by the thriller and song titles which have borrowed this phrase.
So what lies at the heart of Passiontide is not suffering in the current sense of ‘enduring pain’—although there is certainly enough of that—but Christ being on the receiving end of things, being done to. Christ relinquishing control and ending up in the hands of others, completely at their mercy. Suffering things to happen to him, not acting. This makes a surprising contrast to his earlier ministry, which was packed with action and powerful deeds. He preached, he healed, he worked wonders, he was in control—even of the wind and the waves.
This kind of Christ is a more straightforward proposition. The sort of powerful charismatic leader you’d follow to the ends of the earth. Die for, even. The disciples were up for that. They had swords. Peter even struck a blow and chopped an ear off. But how can you rally to the cause of a man who won’t fight, won’t stand up for himself, who in fact forbids you to defend him and meekly suffers himself to be led off? That’s when the disciples abandoned him and ran.
Passivity of this kind is unsettling. It verges on being a bit victim-y, which goes against the grain. Even if I do fall victim to something, I can sense a pressure to redefine myself as a survivor, not a victim. To get closure, and regain control of my own narrative. Nobody wants to embrace a victim mentality.
Or do they? Do we ever voluntarily hand ourselves over to others, and relinquish all control of our destiny? Well, if you’ve ever undergone surgery which required a general anaesthetic, the answer is yes. If you have ever waddled, vastly pregnant into a labour ward, the answer is yes. You might think you’re in control when you’re having a baby, but sorry, you’re really not. Ask any midwife and she’s likely to tell you that when she sees a detailed birth plan, all intervention- and medication-free she thinks ‘Uh-oh. Here comes trouble.’
I remember the moment when the midwife rolled an empty cot into the labour room the night my first son was born—five weeks early, not part of the plan. For a second I thought, ‘What’s that for? Oh! She really thinks I’m going to have an actual baby to put in there by the end of this night.’ It was probably at that point that I realised there was now no way out, no choice, no power left for me to exercise. There was no option of saying ‘Right, I’ve had enough, I’m off home.’ Though plenty of women do say that, ask any midwife. No—one way or another, this baby was about to be born.
We agree to hand ourselves over to the care of others, to put ourselves at the mercy of events, to relinquish control for a mixture of reasons. Because we no longer have much choice, maybe, and for the sake of what lies beyond. We go through labour and childbirth because there will be something to put in the cot when it’s all over. A new life. There is no other way. We have the pacemaker fitted or the gall bladder taken out, in order to gain a new life. There is no other way.
This resonates for me when I think about Christ’s passion, his passivity, his allowing himself to be handed over. Was it for the sake of new life, because there was no other way? Why was there no other way? Maybe ‘suffering the cross to happen to him’ was an antidote to something? Not a homoeopathic cure, treating like with like, but a cancelling out, a neutralising, an undoing of something. What might that something be? What is the polar opposite to Christ’s passion?
There’s a hint in one of the very earliest Christian hymns written. It’s found in a letter to the church at Philippi: ‘Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’
It is this ‘grasping at equality with God’ that offers a way in, I think. The word suggests a kind of robber-like grabbing. Plundering. Think back to that summer of looting, when people seemed to lose the plot in a fever of aggravated shopping. Or else consider that little kink in our nature that makes us go, Pah! when a friend is promoted. The child in us that protests ‘How come SHE gets the big piece?’ Or experimentally stomps on ants for no good reason, other than because we can, to see what happens, to check what it feels like to exercise that kind of power. That doesn’t really want the house, the lover, the children, so much as not want the other person to have them. The urge that ends up, writ large, right across human history: the Scramble for Africa, Lebensraum, genocide, the blithe ransacking of the planet for short term profit.
The opposite to this kind of Me first! snatch-and-grabbiness—the antidote to this, according to the hymn in Philippians, is a self-emptying. Abandoning godhead with its phenomenal cosmic power, in favour of—to quote Disney’s genie—the itty-bitty living space of the human body. I sometimes wonder how that must have felt. For all our sense of the human body’s potency, its powerful agency, and capacity to do things and act upon the world, surely for Christ it was the first step on that downward path to utter powerlessness. It began with him divested of godhead, utterly dependent, a babe in arms, totally entrusted to flawed and finite human hands. And it ended the same way: with him putting himself back in our hands, suffering death, even death on the cross.
Behind this talk of ‘grasping at equality with God’ lurk our great fore-father and mother in Eden. Adam and Eve, taking a long look at the fruit of the forbidden tree, checking nobody was about in the garden, and making a grab for it. The chance to be like God. The shortcut to omnipotence. To godhead.
It still has the power to provoke panic, this finiteness. This creatureliness. Humans begin helpless in this life, and rage, rage against the dying of the light. Fighting that descent back into helplessness again. Doesn’t it feel a bit like an affront, to retire, to age, to become dependent on others, at the mercy of public transport and the NHS? Nobody wants to become a nuisance, a burden, reliant on the good will of friends and relatives, fitting in with their schedules, in need of hand-outs, trapped in a culture of dependency. No, I will not go gentle into that good night if I can help it. I’ll be obliged to die one day, but on my own terms, I’ll be in control to the very last if possible, thank you very much.
Easy to forget that you’re only mortal. Especially when you’re young. Crash helmets, seat belts, speed limits—who need them? I see the youngsters tear past me, their laughter and shouts trailing after them—pretty much as I did when I was twenty—not believing in my own mortality, expect as a vague concept. The way I believed in Russia, without ever expecting to go there.
Maybe this explains the urge to grasp at youth, as though that were the fruit of the tree? Youth, with all its connotations of power, of being in control of our destiny? Fight those signs of ageing! But who am I kidding? Things are only going in one direction. The choice is between wrinkles and being already dead. This is the stark message of Ash Wednesday and the ceremony of the imposition of ashes. That cold smear of ash placed on your forehead, and the words: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ Remember you are dust. Remember. Remember.
Those are the words spoken to Adam and Eve, when they were driven out of the garden, snarled up and out of kilter their creator and the creation and with themselves. ‘Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’ Sometimes it still feels like that: panicking, endlessly looking for the road home, the way back in, grasping, grasping for power, for answers, for control, raging, fighting against the dying of the light. Still homesick for the garden. And another chance. Another life.
There was another garden. Gethsemane. And another Adam. The choice was still there: to seize earthly power, muster the zealot freedom fighters—weren’t they ready with their swords? Palm Sunday was still ringing in their ears. Here comes the king! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! A word from Jesus—that’s all they were waiting for! Then call down heavenly reinforcements—let God reveal his power, his mighty arm, and put this mess right.
The agony, the blood, sweat and tears of that decision in Gethsemane. There was another way, but that doorway was so small, so low, that the only path through meant the stripping away of everything, it meant being utterly crushed, destroyed. And all the time, the possibility of cosmic power still hung there, like the fruit of the tree, ripe for the picking—was he not entitled to it? If the son of God is not entitled to exercise power, then who is?
That early hymn suggests an answer: ‘Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’
‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!’ the passers by taunted Christ. Prove it. Prove you are who you claim to be. Prove your power. Act. Do something. Don’t just hang there, don’t just take it. But the temptation to treat like with like, to trump power with still more power, that temptation was seen off in those forty days in the Wilderness. And renounced once again in Gethsemane. It was going to take more than a spectacular coming down from the cross backed by twelve legions of angels to put this one right. There was no shortcut. No other way to unkink that bias towards power-grabbing that undid—and still undoes—our race. No other way to mend it all and put us right. Fix the broken juddering heart, take out all that gall. And give us new life. No other way, than by just hanging there and taking it. Every last bit of it.