‘Agnus Dei’ – Portugese School, 1675-1700.
Oil on Canvas, originally from the Convent of St John the Evangelist, Aveiro. Photo: SPW, 2018.
Listen to the audio here: https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/2018-03-30-broken-a-short-story-for-good-friday
Watch the video here: https://youtu.be/Z9dHdVtycLk
Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I shall begin.
This morning I want to tell a story, and it’s a story that is both the oldest story that there is, but also, perhaps, the most recent.
It begins in a garden, as ancient stories often do.
This time, it’s a garden square on a spring morning in late March. The frosts of winter have finally surrendered, and the early snowdrops and crocuses are offering hope that life yet lies latent in the dead ground.
There’s a woman there, eyes closed, warming her face in the morning sun. Her friend, the man, is sitting by her side, reading something and waiting for nothing in particular.
It’s one of those days when nothing much happens, but everything seems significant. A perfect moment, of tranquil friendship and quiet hope.
The man lifts his eyes from the page to look at the woman, and she flicks her eyes open to return his gaze.
As their eyes meet, a shadow flashes between them. Maybe it was nothing more than a cloud passing the sun; maybe it was something more. A moment of desire, perhaps; a hint that friendship might turn to something more than companionship.
The woman looks away, and the man looks down, but in that brief second of wordless encounter, something has changed. Tension has entered the garden.
The man mutters silently to himself, remembering a mantra from his childhood, “I want, I want, doesn’t get.” The woman is more cautious, remembering the last time desire took her by surprise, and she too recites a proverb of caution, reminding herself ruefully that, “one bitten, twice shy.”
And so they sit there in silence for a while longer, the woman closing her eyes against the brightness of the sun, the man distracting himself with the words on the page in front of him. But the silence has been broken, and that which is broken is not so easily repaired.
Three years later, the silence was broken again, by the wedding bells of a parish church; an appeal to hope, as bride and groom walk each other down the aisle. Friendship surprised by desire had blossomed to something approximating to love, and promises were made in the hope of a better future.
The day had dawned sunny, as weddings days surely should, but by the time of forced smiles for photographs a cloud had started to cast its long shadow.
And it wasn’t long before the game we call blame began. “She started it”, said the man. “But he deserved it”, replied the woman.
Their conversations followed well-worn paths, as the man and the woman discovered the true nature of their deep need of the other. “I love you” became “I need you”. A need to be needed, certainly; a need to be loved, sometimes; but more than these, a need to have someone with whom to share the blame of life, the shame, the guilt.
And she became jealous, in time, of the time he gave to the voices on the pages that he read. And he resented her ability to close her eyes and turn her face towards the sun. And each learned to blame the other, for that which had once been so desired.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 8 They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" 10 He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." 11 He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" 12 The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate." [Genesis 3.6-13]
Three years later the silence was broken once again, this time by a baby’s cry, as fractured love gave birth to startling innocence; and for a while the frosts of winter melted in the warmth of the hopeful new life that had come into their lives.
A child can, for a while, paper over the cracks in a marriage. And two sons, a few years apart, can offer welcome respite from the lonely tension of two.
The man and the woman discovered a surprising unity of purpose, as they learned together a new game of blame focused not on each other, but on their boys. “Life was so easy until you came along”, she said. “Your mother and I have made such sacrifices for you”, he echoed.
And so, as they say, the sins of the parents were visited upon the children, and two brothers took the quest for self-justification deep within their young souls. Each brother yearned for acceptance, and each learned who to blame when it was withheld.
Childhood squabbles bred habits of hatred and jealousy, as brother turned against brother.
The elder, for a few brief idyllic years the sole object of his parents’ attentions, always resented the imposition his younger brother had made on his memories of those early golden years. “My life was perfect,” he would say, “until you came along and ruined everything.”
The younger, of course, had no such memories to draw on, he just saw his elder brother getting to everything in life ahead of him. He was, definitionally, years behind, with no way of catching up. He would always be the second son, the perennial prodigal, and it was his destiny in life to be denied the privileges of the firstborn.
In time the brothers grew apart. Separate lives, separate careers, separate families. Occasionally, seasonally, they would meet up with their father, now alone and living an uneasy long silence. The boys would tell him of their lives, hoping for affirmation, but they were always a disappointment.
Until, one Christmas, the younger son announced that he was changing career, following in his father’s footsteps. And, for the first time, his father smiled with pride. His son was doing what he had done. He was vindicated.
The father turned accusing eyes on his disappointment of an elder son, who flushed with shame and anger. Meanwhile the younger brother turned to his elder brother in triumph, knowing that for the first and only time in his life he had got there first.
The silence of the garden of remembrance was broken by the tears of a woman. A mother crying for her younger son, refusing to be comforted by the man who stood by her side. A couple reunited in grief and guilt. Both sons lost to them, neither one now the keeper of the other, while the blood of the slain cried out from the ground for vindication.
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, "I have produced a man with the help of the LORD." 2 Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." 8 Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" 10 And the LORD said, "What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground! [Genesis 4.1-10]
And so the story continues, from one garden to another.
This time the silence is broken by the sound of a man crying. A man alone with his tears, seeking some release from the burden of shame, and guilt, and grief that has been handed to him. A man longing to pass his suffering on to another, but unable, or unwilling, to do so.
Then there are more men, and some women, and one man betrays his brother with a kiss of death.
The betrayer has realised the futility of projecting hopes and dreams onto another, and so he projects shame and guilt instead.
And then the voices of others join the voice of the first accuser, and guilt is proclaimed over and over and over again, until the brother is guilty enough to deserve the death that is no longer his to refuse.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me." 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want." 40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." 42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, "My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done." 43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand." 47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him." 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, "Friend, do what you are here to do." Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. [Matthew 26.36-50]
Another garden, a place of death. Women weeping.
Death of love, death of hope, death of fear, death of guilt, death of shame, death of death.
Silence. A shadow. Darkness.
Another garden. Silent as the grave.
Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!" 23 Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!" 24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." 25 Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. 27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" 30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. 32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." 38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, 'I am God's Son.'" 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. 45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. [Matthew 27.22-50]
And again, and again, and again, the innocent die to satisfy the guilt of others.
It is both an old story, and a new story. It is our story.
How will it ever end?
That, as they say, is a story for another day...