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To be a Christian

Now it is Easter. As a Christian you go through different rites of passage at this time of the year. From the lows of ‘Good’ Friday where Jesus was crucified and all hope of his mission seemed to have come to a dreadful End. But Easter of course has the happiest of endings. Three days later as Jesus predicted he was raised to life so you rejoice and say Hallelujah-it is the happiest of times.

But at this time of the year in an increasingly secular world that we live in, people may ask “but why do you think Easter is true, what is the proof that Jesus is the Son of God, where is the evidence that Jesus was who he said he was?”

Let me give you just one reason why I am a Christian and see if that helps:

Probably my favourite character in Christendom is a little known 3rd century martyr said only to be in her early 20’s by the name of Perpetua. She lived in what is now Tunis and was due to be baptised as a Christian when the Roman emperor at that time tried to quash Christianity and took her and others like her. Imprisoned prior to being butchered, her father visited her to plead for her to renounce Jesus so she could live. Her response was simple: “Father, do you see this vase here? Could it be called by any other name than what it is? Well, neither can I be called anything other than what I am, a Christian”.

She and her Christian sisters became admired by their prison guards and allowed them to baptise each other. When they entered the arena to be killed they robustly refused to wear the sashes and clothes of the pagan gods and awaited the wild animals who were to gore them, but they refused to approach them and instead attacked her captors. A Gladiator then struck the first blow into Perpetua but he was so shaken by what he was doing that he could not finish the act so Perpetua took his sword and finished the job herself.

Prior to her martyrdom, she wrote a diary of what had happened to encourage others to faith and 18 centuries on, it continues to do that.

When I first heard of Perpetua, I was greatly moved and I can still recall watching a theologian trying to tell the story but eventually she just broke down, so moved was she by the sacrifice made. My argument is why would a young woman in the peak of her life, who had a young daughter, give all that up when all she had to do was to deny who Jesus was? She and her sisters believed and they could not deny who they were and who Jesus is.

I still get moved by the example set by Perpetua and her friends, and there are numerous others who have given their lives or made huge sacrafices rather than deny Jesus. That is just one of the reasons why I remain a Christian. Happy Easter!

Mary Magdalene- oh no Mary!

If we are approaching Easter than it must be time for another film of the Passion. Mary Magdalene is that film for 2018 and in a nutshell it is a real disappointment.

Written for the #MeToo times that we are currently living through, it is a revisionist view of the Gospel stories and especially the role and character of Mary Magdalene herself.

Written by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett it goes back to the Gospels and especially what are known as the Gnostic (unauthorised to you and me) writings that indicated that Mary was a major and senior Disciple of Jesus- and not the Prostitute or ‘fallen woman’ that Christians had been brought up to believe down the generations. As a Christian myself, I have no difficulty over these twin arguments although her role as a senior disciple can be over stated – see Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to see the ultimate heresy!

As Mary, Rooney Mara (The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo) is the stand out performer playing the Magdalene as an independent and forceful young woman who is trying to find her place in the world.  People (mostly men) interpret her wishes and actions as a sign of madness and in a scene which is not that far from abuse they try and drown the Devil out of her. The Gospels of Luke & Mark refer to her having “seven demons” cast out of her of course. Mary withstands this brutal treatment and goes to find her future by leaving her family.

This leads to her meeting Jesus and his Disciples. Now in this tale, Jesus is played by real life boyfriend of Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix- who is better known for his performance as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. And this is the problem. As Jesus, Phoenix plays him as a kind of drifting philosopher who is reliant on his disciples to tell him what to believe, think and do- rather than as the Son of God who was on a critical mission for mankind. You wonder why people would follow him as Phoenix’s Jesus is so insipid and uninspiring. His disciples include Chiwetel Ejifor as Peter and a very impressive Tahar Rahim as Judas- playing him as much as an Agent of God than as pure traitor.

Mary Magdalene does not loyally follow the biblical texts and cuts out major parts of the story to tell its own tale, so for example we have a scene where Mary is asked by other women whether they should obey their husbands or God.

Overall, I found the movie a disappointment. There is a big film waiting to be made about Mary but to understand her you need to understand Jesus, and you cannot see why she did what she did for Phoenix’s Jesus. The photography in the film is though splendid and you see some great views in Southern Italy where the movie was largely filmed, but that apart it is quite drab and it may instead be worth waiting for Mel Gibson’s sequel to his Passion of the Christ which is in the works….

'Targets on the rifle range'?

Last week I attended someone’s funeral service. To be honest, it was someone I  barely knew- just more of a nodding acquaintance at church. But I went along because I knew of her impact on people, how loved she was and I don't know, I just felt a need to be there. It was fully packed in the church as you might expect and the service found the right balance between ‘saying goodbye’ and being a fitting memorial to someone’s life.

What struck me though was how short a life ‘Sal’ had. She died before she was 50 which I think is a really young age, although she seemed to achieve an awful lot in that time span- friends and families who adored her, pupils who were inspired by her and people from a distance (like me) who admired her.

I’ve written previously about how on average we live much longer than people did in the past, but the number of premature deaths does still shock. Early deaths reported in just the last few days have included actress Angharad Rees (63), ex-MP Marsha Singh (57) and ex Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Jackie Orme (just 46).

Trying to make sense of such pointlessly early deaths is really difficult – whether you have a religious or spiritual faith or belief or not - although I do think such a faith can help you come to terms with and try to understand such a loss. Losing someone at such an age can really make you feel insecure about life and question your whole approach to it- if someone can get ‘struck down’ whilst in the midst of life, what is the point of it all? How do you respond or change your outlook if that is needed?

Someone who I think has hit the nail quite closely on the head is Bernie Taupin, probably best known as the long time lyricist to Elton John. On the ‘Blues Never Fade Away’ track from their ‘The Captain and the Kid’ album (2006) Taupin laments such losses:

“She was 21 with her life ahead, you don’t know to need her name
She breathed her last on the cold stone floor of a Hollywood arcade
But fate’s right hand isn’t always just, puts a lot of pressure on your faith and trust
She was just a little girl, ain’t that enough to rage against the day?”

His insight into what this means although a tad cynical must strike a familiar note to most of us:

“And how did we get so lucky? Targets on the rifle range
Who makes the call and who gets to choose?
Who gets to win and who gets to lose?”

We may all be ‘targets on the rifle range’ and it can feel very arbitrary whether we live to the age of 90 suffering minor illnesses through our time or if in our 40’s, 50’s or 60’s we have a stroke, a heart attack or get Cancer and our time on earth comes to a premature end.

Yes there are some things we can do to reduce our risk of dying early (eat healthily, take regular exercise, choose our parents wisely!) but quite often when such things happen they can seem so unjust or unfair and lead us to ‘rage against the day’, and that attitude needs carefully handling.

As I say, there are no answers in this area- although I am a great believer in your faith or personal philosophy about Life making a big difference about how you view such events. Like ‘Sal’, when such serious illness comes, you just have to deal with what is, Pray if you believe, and trust that the medical profession can play their part in extending your life.