David Frith urges us to look beyond the next fix of fun and escapism to the real joys that lie ahead, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice
Outside our back door and around the house we have collections of coloured pebbles and sea shells, spirit-lifting mementoes of happy and warmer days spent on different beaches on holiday. By the time you read this, the days will be getting warmer and the daylight stronger. We will also have noticed and rejoiced in other signs of improving weather: catkins, snowdrops, early lambs, daffodils, birds singing, the grass looking greener, and so on. And in the world of human affairs, who can fail to have noticed pictures, programmes, articles and conversations, all encouraging us to consider future holidays?
In the dark days we naturally look forward to something brighter and better, and rejoice in those pointers, like our sea shells, which tell us bleak times don’t last forever. What nicer way for many to hasten this prospect of future gladness by doing the research, looking at brochures and websites, and then finally making real that longed-for better future by actually booking the holiday?!
Springtime, then, is a time of hope, renewal, warmer days, the defeat of darkness, good things ahead. No wonder eggs, chicks, lambs, budding flowers and blossom feature so strongly in our imagery for Spring and the Easter season. That “ancient pulse of germ(ination) and birth” (as Thomas Hardy describes it in a very wintry poem) still beats strongly today and gladdens us in prospect.
As we contemplate the brightening meteorological future and the consoling prospect of time away on holiday, it might seem odd to be raising a cautionary note. Is everything ahead really quite so rosy and hopeful, uplifting and reassuring ? Is our natural focus on holiday pleasure and the freedom from the drudge and dreariness of the everyday actually a bit myopic?
As we raise our sights and see other less desirable things coming down the road towards us, it might seem natural to lower our vision again to the brighter short-term elements of the future over which we exercise some control. We’d rather edit out the advancing years, illness, crises, shortage of resources and offensive regimes making the lives of countless millions miserable. Add your own woe at this point! As Voltaire’s Candide famously puts it, we (in real or metaphorical ways) can tend just to want to “cultivate our garden.”
In this connection it is instructive to recall a verse in Scripture which notes that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9.51) No holiday trip lined up here. He had his sights fixed on an end point and was not going to be deflected in his intentions, even though he knew a long time back precisely what was coming down his particular road: what we memorialise this year on Friday April 14. This point of aim meant he knew, understood and accepted the various stages that were to lead up to this outcome: something we by contrast feel aghast at, since such purposefulness and far-sightedness are quite daunting for most people.
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews in our New Testament puts the crucifixion in a broader context of something far better coming as a result of Christ’s suffering: “Jesus, for the joy set before him endured the cross.” The knowledge of something unimaginably greater ahead, and the trust that even in the worst of suffering and anguish God is somehow still mysteriously present, helped him face the very worst ordeal any human can face.
On 1 March the season of Lent begins. It’s an opportunity for personal preparation for the outburst of joy and hope and the defeat of death’s power of Easter. We have a ready-made chance in the coming weeks, perhaps by some traditional ‘giving up’, or by taking on extra disciplines (prayer, reading, meditation, quiet time to do some guided or specific thinking) to create space to make a personal ‘collection’ of those things, like our shells, which remind us that behind the very real darkness and bleakness of much of life, there is a future hope of which Christ has been the pioneer. As he told his disciples on one of the occasions he was with them after the resurrection: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
David Frith, Reader, Berkeley Benefice