Isolation, distance, loneliness: the dominant themes of our situation offer insights into the events of Holy Week.
Good Friday brings the moment of ultimate isolation for Jesus. In the darkness and the hideous pain of the moment, his voice expresses his sense of utter desolation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Perhaps death is the moment of absolute isolation, the moment of being cut off from everyone and everything. Perhaps death is the conclusion of the reality of our lives. It was the American film maker Orson Welles who declared, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”
Welles’ words disturb. To die alone seems the worst loneliness that can be imagined. It is a thought that recalls a troubling moment at a Christmastime in Northern Ireland.
Gentle and very softly spoken, the man had asked that he might tell a story at the forthcoming carol service. It would be his last with us before he left the country that he had adopted as his home more than fifty years previously. “It is a story from my boyhood in Germany”.
The carol service was packed, the church lit completely by candlelight and the music sublime. It was a celebration more than a service. We had Betjeman and TS Eliot as well as Scripture. The man was a folk hero in our community and when he walked to the lectern, surrounded by flickering candles, it was a magical moment.
“I would like to tell a story,” he said.
He told us of a little boy on Christmas Day in Germany in the 1920s. The boy received a sledge for Christmas and had to walk some way from home to find a hill on which he could ride the sledge. It was a sharply cold day with brilliant winter sunshine and the boy spent a very happy afternoon, walking to the top of a slope and sliding down, repeating the descent again and again. The afternoon passed and it was time for the boy to return home.
“The boy realized that he was alone. He was alone then and when the time came for him to die, he would die alone. I know this is so, because the little boy was me”.
There was a deathly hush in the church, but the storyteller was completely tranquil. He smiled enigmatically and walked back to his seat.
The story touched a raw nerve, the tale of childhood innocence had drawn us in, only for it to confront us with a dark reality we did not wish to consider.
Good Friday compels us to confront darkness and evil, it forces us to confront the thoughts we might prefer never to consider. But for Christians, that loneliness is never absolute.
These reflections for Holy Week began with the words of Lieutenant Noel Hodgson’s poem Before Action. In Sebastian Faulks’ novel Charlotte Gray, the character Levade reflects on the experience of those who fell in the Great War, but who had no known grave:
“No child born knows the world he is entering, and at the moment of his birth he is a stranger to his parents. When he dies, many years later, there may be regrets among those left behind that they never knew him better, but he is forgotten almost as soon as he dies because there is no time for others to puzzle out his life. After a few years he will be referred to once or twice by a grandchild, then by no one at all. Unknown at the moment of birth, unknown after death. This weight of solitude! A being unknown.
And yet, if I believe in God, I am known. On the tombs of the English soldiers, the ones too fragmented to have a name, I remember that they wrote ‘Known unto God’. By this they meant that here was a man, who did once have arms and legs and a father and a mother, but they could not find all the parts of him – least of all his name.
God will know me, even as I cannot know myself. If He created me, then He has lived with me. He knows the nature of my temptations and the manner of my failing. So I am not alone. I have for my companion the creator of the world.
At the hour of my death I would wish to be ‘known unto God.'”
Faulks points to perfection in desolation – that in utter isolation there is an inexpressible companionship.
Good Friday speaks of God embracing the depths of human experience, so that they might be confident that God is with them in their own moments of darkness.