Giving Easter hope to our Calvary people
Fr Kevin Hegarty
I have never been on a Holy Land pilgrimage. People who have been, tell me that one cannot hope to understand the bible unless one has walked in the historical steps of Jesus Christ. They may be right but I am not so sure. Package tours give only a limited view of reality. It is as if one can appreciate the complexity of Ireland by hearing the charming guff of a jarvey on the streets of Killarney.
Though I have never been to Calvary I think I have a sense of it. Calvary is not just a geographical place, nor is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ just an historical event. It is a symbol for human suffering.
I have had my share of afflictions, which is the common human lot, but I am not as egotistical as to equate them with Calvary. I do, however, know people for whom Calvary is a living reality, those who are suffering or have suffered what Pope Benedict called “the desert of God’s darkness”.
People who have had a family member commit suicide, who are left with the life-long question as to what pushed him or her over the edge into the abyss. Families who have had multiple terminal illnesses. A mother watching her daughter disintegrate due to an invasive condition for which death is a merciful release. Those for whom meaning in life has evaporated as quickly as snow under a midday sun.
Young couples who bought expensive houses when they had well-paid jobs and when there seemed to be no end to the horizons of the celtic tiger economy. Now they know these horizons to be a mirage, unemployed, mortgages mushrooming, repossessions staring them in the face, love strained to breaking point and beyond.
People who as children suffered the scarifying wound of sexual abuse. The millions caught in the trap of third world poverty. Those rejected, alienated and ridiculed because of ethnic origin or sexual orientation. The list seems endless.
A Calvary census is a lengthy one. For so many people the words of Rashers Tierney in the novel, ‘Strumpet City’ ring true: “God never closed one door but he closed another”.
The Scottish poet, Somhairle Mac Gill-Eain trenchantly evokes the living reality of Calvary:
“My eye is not on Calvary,
Nor on Bethleham the Blessed,
but on a foul-smelling backland in Glasgow,
Where life rots as it grows,
And on a room in Edinburgh,
A room of poverty and pain,
Where the diseased infant
Writhes and wallows till death”.
It is not surprising, given our Christian tradition and the ubiquity of human suffering, that the crucifixion is the religious scene that has been depicted in Irish art from 800 AD to today. In his book ‘The Crucifixion in Irish Art’ Peter Harbison discusses 50 examples of these representations.
All are interesting, some particularly moving. One of my favourites is one of the earliest, the crucifixion slab on Inishkea North, which dates from the 9th century.
I like its simplicity but I must also declare an interest. The island, now uninhabited, is part of the parish where I minister.
On the west face of the slab is the figure of Christ, its curving features contrasting with the largely straight lines of the cross on which he is crucified. Christ’s open eyes and his upward curving mouth give the hint of a smile, possible suggesting the resurrection. A beard is indicated by a few vertical lines on his chin.
Harbison suggests that it may mark the grave of an unknown saint or it may have been designed to inspire the meditations of those who could have used the spot as one of the stations on their pilgrimage to the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick. We are in the midst of Holy Week.
I do not want to sound glib or offer patronising consolation but Calvary on Good Friday is part of a longer journey. What we profess to believe as Christians is that Jesus, through his Calvary experience, triumphed over human tragedy, pain and death, not only for himself but for us.
Our lives are doorways, not into the dark but into the light. May those who are now camped on Calvary experience some illumination this Eastertide.
It is appropriate that we celebrate Easter in spring time, the season of rebirth, renewal, longer days and new life. Our landscape hints at the awesome reality of Resurrection. Kerry Hardie, in the poem, Connemara Easter, writes:
“The white strand, the frail colour of the sea moving over it,
the spring day running out, the empty sands,
the otter’s clawmarks, leisurely, a rolling trot,
going into the wash, not coming back,
leaving a small deep awe, kin to strewn grave cloths”.
Happy Easter to all readers of The Mayo News.