On Friday the local ecumenical act of witness, packed in between Sainsbury’s and the gates of the market, featured a gospel group, the accents of the old East End, prayers led by a Nigerian nun, songs in Urdu, and a Portuguese version of ‘Jesus, name above all names’. It was very wet, and mildly chaotic.
Nothing wrong with any of that: indeed, there was much to welcome in a gathering of such diversity bearing witness together, and it certainly illustrated the variety of Christian communities in this part of east London. But I came away to prepare for Stations of the Cross in our own church and on the way I was talking to a friend. The two of us found ourselves struggling with the inability of some of our brothers and sisters to stay with Good Friday; they had raced ahead to Easter, to the triumph and the alleluias, while we were still focussed on crucifixion, on suffering and on death.
Different traditions work in different ways. But I think there was something deeper and more subtle at work as well.
Every couple of months, in our Sunday eucharist, we change the way in which intercessions are offered. Instead of one person coming forward to speak on behalf of the rest, we invite anyone from the congregation to offer prayer for a person or place or situation who or which is a cause for concern or gratitude. What we hear is a very powerful statement of the pains and needs of the people present, their families, the situations they have left behind. What we very rarely hear, although they are always invited, are words of thanksgiving.
Perhaps we are a people who understand Good Friday much better than we do Easter. Suffering, grief, loss, these are familiar states. Any priest or pastor, looking round her or his congregation, will know a fair number of those who are struggling – and know that there are more whose struggle is hidden. Here, amongst the 60 or so who will gather on a Sunday, I can recognise those whose lives are shadowed by untimely death, sometimes violent, by poverty, by worries over residence qualifications, by domestic violence, by imminent or recent bereavement, by poor health, mental or physical.
So, when we say or sing or even shout our ‘alleluias’ today, what are we saluting? And what relationship do those ‘alleluias’ have to our intercessions? We are not, of course, acknowledging the disappearance of suffering in each of these lives, and in the world to which this congregation is so well connected. Nor are we rejoicing in a facile conviction that our own contributions to injustice and pain have suddenly disappeared. But those prayers of intercession come from a heartfelt need of God’s love and support – and a deep, absolute, trust that it will be found. And I think it is that trust which we will celebrate. It is a trust, articulated or not, in the eschatological promise, in what J D Crossan describes as ‘the Great, Divine, Clean-Up of the world’. The promise of another way, which is not just for the hereafter but which is already being followed. The way of violence, of damage, of exclusion has been challenged – and the heart of our resurrection belief is that the challenge has been triumphantly, mysteriously successful.