It is twenty-five years since my first Holy Week in a rural parish. Holy Week in the country was always a special time.
The parish was tiny, 250 people. Even if I had had no list of parishioners, I need only have asked the Catholic farmers and they would have pointed out every Church of Ireland household. Perhaps it was the smallness that gave the parish its strength. A couple of times the diocese had cast their eye in the direction of this little patch and thought it high time that they were merged with somewhere else, but given it was bounded on two sides by the sea, there weren’t many options available to those who would redraw the lines.
They weren’t people much given to shows of enthusiasm and they weren’t people much given to change. If something found resonance in those deep and unfathomable country psyches, then it was supported with their whole hearts, if something struck a wrong chord, they would say nothing, but mark their dispproval by their absence.
Marking the agricultural year was important: we began with Plough Sunday in January, bringing a plough into the church and asking for God’s blessing upon it as a sign of his blessing upon the coming year; on Rogation Sunday in May, we went out to one of the farms to ask for a blessing on the crops; and on the first Sunday in October, we gathered for the Harvest Festival.
But Holy Week and Easter were even bigger than the farming festivals. Services each evening would start with a congregation of a couple of dozen on Monday, rising to seventy or so by Good Friday. On my first Easter Day, I was taken aback, there were 164 in the congregation, 65% of the parish on a single morning.
What was it that made Easter so important when their attitude to Christmas was “take it or leave it”?
Perhaps it was the retelling of the cycle of life, death and resurrection which found such resonance in a community deep in rural realities, perhaps there was something more. Perhaps Easter was a contradiction of the modern world which many regarded as an enemy of the life and community they so much loved. Perhaps Saint Paul would have understood how the felt when writing to the Christians at Corinth,
“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength”.