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Thursday, 21 April 2011

Easter message from Lord Alton

Universe Column

April 24th 2011: Easter.

David Alton

As Jesus’ broken and forlorn little group of followers came to terms with the bloody conclusion of a good man’s death, they were confronted with words which both bewilder and amaze: God’s divine surprise.

St. Matthew takes up the story: “He is not here; He has risen, just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay.” And St. Luke “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!”

The German Marxist philosopher and atheist, Ernst Bloch, understood the uniqueness of Christianity’s central claim:

“It wasn't the morality of the Sermon on the Mount which enabled Christianity to conquer Roman Paganism, but the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In an age when Roman senators vied to see who could get the most blood of a steer on their togas--thinking that would prevent death--Christianity was in competition for eternal life, not morality."

In all the Crucifixion places in the world – and there are, this day, an estimated 250 million Christians facing some form of persecution - Easter is proof of life and hope beyond Calvary. Of course, outright persecution is not the only form of Crucifixion – the pain of rejection, loss, and physical or emotional anguish create their own Calvaries. But Easter makes sense of them all.

If we failed to comprehend, or mistook the enormity of the Easter claim, we wouldn’t be the first. When Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Lord she first mistakes Him for the gardener.

The Old Testament and our human story begin in a garden and it is in a garden that the Gospels conclude. Gardens are rich in metaphors - susceptible to drought; frost; disease and neglect. In due season they break forth with tremendous and abundant new life, providing beauty and bounty. Then they die, becoming dormant, waiting to break forth into new life.

In October 1922 T.S. Eliot used the metaphor of the garden to capture the painful stirring of what had been dead when, in The Criterion, he published The Waste Land. It was composed during a period of personal difficulty for Eliot—his marriage was failing, and both he and Vivien were suffering from nervous disorders. The poem is often read as a representation of the disillusionment of the post-war generation but, for me, it has always captured the mood which the traumatised disciples must have experienced.

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Eliot is mixing, here, the memory of death with the desire for life: the belief that out of the waste land will come something new. In Eliot’s own case, it was the new life of Christianity.

In the waste lands of our contemporary world and in the waste lands of our personal lives the Easter narrative makes sense of all the other stories; and, most crucially, of death.

In Hamlet’s famous soliloquy “To be or not to be”, Shakespeare compares death with “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns” It is the angel comforting Mary Magdalene, who points us towards that undiscovered country: “He is not here. He is risen” He has gone to the undiscovered country – the journey each one of us has to make.

On Easter Day we momentarily lift the veil which separates death from life, time from eternity and victory from abject failure and defeat. The enormity of what has occurred is epitomised by the images of the scandalous Calvary Cross and the awesomeness of the empty tomb.

Easter is the day on which we can fan the ashes of dead hope; a day to gaze on a distant horizon; a day on which to set aside our many defeats.

As Emily Bronte put it:

There is not room for Death,

Nor atom that his might could render void:

Thou - Thou art Being and Breath,

And what Thou art may never be destroyed

In 1922, in his poem “The Convert”, on the day he became a Catholic, GK Chesterton gave voice to the central Easter claim:

The sages have a hundred maps to give

That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree…

And all these things are less than dust to me

Because my name is Lazarus and I live.

Easter represents a new springtime of the human spirit; a triumph over despair and a day on which to run the risk of hope.

Georges Bernanos, the 20th-century French author, captured this thought well: "The highest form of hope is to triumph over despair; to hope is to run the risk. It is, in fact, the risk of risks."

Among the world’s one billion Catholics - celebrating Easter and the other great festivals; the love of food and drink; of family and community; the willing and generous gift of time and whole lives in loving service; the celebration of the sacraments, feasts and seasons; of life itself: these, are all the hallmarks of a faith which knows how to celebrate: not to remain trapped on Calvary; not to look for the living among the dead.

In different ages – and especially in some of our northern European countries - some of God’s gifts have been despised by religious believers: the Gnostics hated the material world, the Jansenists hated sex, and the puritans abolished festivals and celebrations. These heresies though, were all repudiated by the Church and, even though some of this thinking still percolates into our lives, it is not at the heart of universal Catholic identity or culture.

O, and yes, a lot of us Catholics know more than a thing or two about sin but, whatever our mistakes or inadequacies, we have learnt through our faith not to be totally incapacitated by our human flaws and failings. Even from the despair of Cross Jesus asks that we be forgiven: “for they know not what they do.”

As we limp on, stained and humbled, in our soiled kit, and conscious of the hatred and ignominy represented by Christ’s cross, we know that beyond the history of defeats still lies the glimpse of final victory: the empty tomb.

Phillip Brooks’ poem, “An Easter Carol”, seizes on the strength which this belief confers:

Tomb, thou shallt not hold Him longer;

Death is strong, but Life is stronger;

Stronger than the dark, the light;

Stronger than the wrong, the right...”

The strength and the hope of new life is, above all, what I am celebrating on this Easter Day.


  1. A holy and happy Easter to you.

    Do you, perhaps, mean Lord Alton?

  2. Excuse the earlier faux-pas - thanks you for your comment you can see that the error has been corrected...

    Happy Easter


  3. Thank you for posting David Alton's beautiful meditation. I am tweeting it again.

    The Peace of Christ.

    Chris Wright

  4. What a beautiful, uplifting and profound meditation. Many thanks to Lord Alton for penning it and to the British Pakisistani association for publishing it! HmB.

  5. Dear All.
    I am a Pakistani Christian and I think that the time has come when need to think for the christian in the countries like Pakistan,where we do not know what will happen in next moment to any christian .
    We need to let them get education.Our people are having eight or nine kids in villages, in a result they can not provide them the basic needs the kids can not be the success full in future,In our christian schools feeces are very is the key to every success we all know we have to do some thing for this.

  6. Riffy, I agree with you 100%. The children are the future of Pakistan. And equal access to a GOOD education must be available to all - rich and poor alike. Poverty will continue and people will continue to live hand to mouth as they have for generations unless the masses are educated. People who have not been taught to think rationally are subject to living their lives strictly on emotion (i.e., hatred and revenge). We see too much of that now in Pakistan - emotional reaction, instead of behavior based upon thought and wisdom, respect and shared values. The one thing that must be addressed, is the hatred for the west and Christians that is part of the school curriculum. That must be removed and substituted with respect for all people classes and religions. Watch out for those text books that are being used - I've seen the hate filled bias written in some that are promoting the anti-Christian, anti-West propaganda. These children must be taught how to think, to learn, not to hate. Mamite Geda