Opening the Path to Heaven 5 April, 2007

April 23, St George’s Day, is traditionally William Shakespeare’s birthday, but how much do we know about England’s greatest poet? In her wonderful book, Shadowplay, Clare Asquith reads between the lines of the plays, revealing not just a man of passion with deep sympathy for the persecuted Roman Catholics of his time, but a man seeking to influence the course of the Reformation. The plays contain messages addressed to Catholics, Puritans and courtiers, messages advocating tolerance and wisdom at a time when these were in short supply. Clare Asquith is one of the main tutors at a summer school this July in Oxford, where students of Shakespeare can explore the religious and cultural factors that shaped the Renaissance both at home and abroad in Italy.

By the way, in this connection I was pleasantly surprised to note recently how our online Forum on SHAKESPEARE’S SECRET has taken off, and the high level of the discussion. The Forum is free to register, and you don’t need to register in order to read it, only if you want to post replies and start threads. We began our online Forums in response to popular demand after a conference on Fantasy Literature a few years ago, and the Shakespeare Forum began as a way of helping last year’s Summer School students stay in touch with each other. But it has grown since then, and is open to anyone. Drop in and take a look. — S.C.

The Easter Triduum

Christians all over the world were trying to enter imaginatively into the journey of their Lord to Calvary and beyond, through death to resurrection and eternal life. Jesus makes the solid Cross into a gateway, a road to heaven. For meditations see ‘The Stations of the Cross‘ elsewhere on this site.

Good Friday. The Cross is the form of his death. The Cross is the shadow of man. It is what all men fear. It is whatever human nature fears and shrinks from. It is the darkness, the humiliation, the ignominy, the ugliness, the powerlessness, the rejection, the immobility…. He embraces this, and he does it for us. In each of us, he can do the same. When we face the shadow, he is able to embrace it and transform it. Deep within, he is there praying in us, through his Spirit: Not my will but thine be done.

He is the one who is personally offended in every sin, every compromise with the truth, every betrayal of a friend, every act of adultery, every theft, every lack of attention. Now he begins to feel the weight of this reality. The Cross he has started to carry is a kind of ‘sacrament’ of sin. In the Cross all sin, all that blocks grace, all that is counter to the Holy Spirit, all that kills love in us, is mysteriously present.

Why is it necessary for him to suffer all this personally, consciously? It is necessary because he is the incarnation of the fullness of God and the fullness of man. The Father does not hold back anything of the divine nature that he can give to his Son; the fullness of human nature must be united with that. Not that his human experience becomes infinite: that would not be human. Rather, the human in him achieves its maximum capacity. ‘No cry of torment can be greater than the cry of one man. Or again, no torment can be greater than what a single human being may suffer’ (Wittgenstein).

From a Crucifixion by Cimabue

Holy Saturday. Was everything for nothing? So it seems, when the Lord has gone. We go through the motions, we commemorate the person we have lost. The women observe the Sabbath, then they will go to the tomb. In the meantime, while all reason for hope seems to have disappeared, we are filled with a quiet anticipation. The world is waiting for something. Undergound the seed of life is beginning to do its mysterious work.

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerlly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water” (I Peter 20).

Easter Sunday. Christ is risen, and risen no more to die. But risen to what a life, and in what a form? To a life not longer subject to death, to entropy. Are we tempted to cling, like Mary Magdalen, to what is familiar? Do we look for him among the dead, and fail to see him? He will reveal his new life to us when he chooses, on the road, in a closed room, by a campfire on the seashore in the dawn light. He will go where we must follow, but for now part of us is left behind. Part of us is still in the tomb. Yet when we remember him, we remember not the past but the future. Something is possible now that was not before, and the way to heaven is open. “There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body…. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:40-57).