The Fractal and the Cosmic

Tuesday 27th March 2018
Tuesday of Holy Week
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint

Two impressive advocates have recently come out against the doom-mongers: from Stephen Pinker's Enlightenment Now and Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens we learn, to our surprise, that not only are more of us living longer and more pleasant lives, we are also safer from violence than at any time in history. In our country the murder rate might have gone up slightly in the last two years but deaths from violence at home and wars abroad continues to decline. And against the complaint that our television news is full of violent imagery, I should recall that some years ago Margaret and I went to an exhibition of photographs of war which graphically showed what newspapers and television quite properly censor; we never see the worst.

At the time of Jesus, violent death was in the streets and on the hills; at the Roman overthrow of Jerusalem in 70 AD there were so many crucifixions that they ran out of wood! In Medieval Europe there were murders on the scale of and as Brutal as Islamic state; there were executed corpses hung from city gates; and retribution was almost universally sudden and violent.

I begin here because it is too easy to escape from the horror of the passion and death of Jesus, to focus on the outcome, to escape from the real violence of the process and fix our minds on the abstracted outcome.

I do not think this means that we need to read again long descriptions of the calculated cruelty and degradation of death by crucifixion but it does mean that we have to focus on the real suffering to which Jesus voluntarily and deliberately committed himself.

Not uniquely by any means, concentrating on the actual narratives takes some mental effort because we are caught up in the tangle - and sometimes the fog - of meaning associated with the narrative, intent on reading into the text what it means for us instead of concentrating on what it tells us about the agony of Jesus. And we are, perhaps, not helped in our efforts because the Gospels are precise and not discursive, with the exception of John, or sentimental; they look, particularly in the case of Mark, like tabloid journalism at its very best; but we should not allow the economical style to down-grade the enormity of the events, the intensity of the horror and the incalculable suffering.

One of the cross currents in understanding the passion and death of Jesus is piety's supreme effort of imagination which has generated a kind of beauty, notably in Renaissance painting and baroque music which have more room for imagination than the written word, given that nothing after the Gospels can equal the Evangelists. The intention is almost always to bring us to a closer understanding of events but it is all too easy to take refuge in a comfortable appreciation rather than a painful self-identification.

Paradoxically, then, this might be a very good time to watch the news carefully to understand a human plight which Jesus shared in the ultimate experience of suffering and death.