Tomorrow begins the Christian season of Lent and it opens in extraordinary circumstances for the Christian church.
Pope Benedict's dramatic resignation on health grounds presents the Catholic Church, Christianity generally and, crucially, the wider public worldwide with social or ethical consciences, with an unrivalled opportunity to reflect on the major issues which beset religious belief in the modern world.
Yes, churchy people will observe the usual Easter run-up, but most people will use it as an opportunity to revisit the lost resolutions of New Year.
Really, Christian belief has become so outlandish and the churches beset by so much controversy, it makes you wonder why they bother.
Yes, everyone sentimentalises a benign power in the universe. But even if that is called 'God', it's really the Star Wars 'Force', Santa, Harry Potter, the Easter Bunny. A big balloon of vague goodwill looking down on football matches, Heads of State, areas of outstanding natural beauty, wee babies. The 'Christmas Story' is part and parcel of that. Something to do with 'God', but nothing to do with Christ. Christmas is 'feel good' time and we like to think of other people doing good things for other people like us. Christ himself is a kind of hippy figure, youngish, blokish, being nice to people with bad skin, hanging out with druggies, and, generally, being somehow 'misrepresented' by the Christian churches.
God – apparently – is 'love', at least since the 1960s. The churches rolled along with that one. The three big virtues used to be Faith, Hope and Charity, but churchy sleight of hand fell in with the third now being 'Lurv', which is completely different from Charity.
These image-making ruses suit the churches. They quite like the idea that God is Barry White, that Christ has a 'populist' angle. The fact he had a 'single mum', got lost as a child, lost his temper, got scared, was victimised and then put to death, gives him a kind of relevance. Less forbidding, less priggish, less off-putting, less an irritating geek.
They like it especially when some natural disaster occurs and everyone wonders absurdly where 'God' was. It's big vague God who gets slammed – big vague Christian God that is. Nobody chances pinning the slaughter of natural disasters on Allah.
As if either of them should only be saving the lives of thousands, intervening only when big disasters are about to happen. Your mum can go on dying from cancer and the car with your son in it can still leave the road at a bad bend.
'If there's a God, why do bad things happen?' bleat the bleaters, who've been raised to believe that 'life is about love'. Most of us are 30 when we find out differently.
I'm no theologian. But it's obvious accidents occur because that's what they are, that natural disasters happen because we live in a natural world and bad things happen because there are bad people.
God's stern role was never about stopping bad things being done. He specialised in punishing bad people afterwards.
And this is where God's writ really no longer runs. Nothing is 'wrong' anymore, except the murder of children. With everything else ... well, it all depends, no smoke without fire ... Santa doesn't do kneecappings. Jesus stopped thinking anything was, er, 'wrong', decades ago. His job is to sing carols, not talk about Hell, let alone put people in it.
And while everyone likes the idea of Heaven – field of dreams, Gladiator, some bluey Afterworld where all the dead are put back together again, reconnected with lost limbs and lost relatives – no one believes in Hell anymore. It's gone for good.
There is no punishment. There is no retribution. In a word, there is no 'justice' elsewhere. Which means there isn't justice anywhere.
As we know from a casual glance around our own tiny corner.
So you wonder why Christian churches bother with those soup kitchens, sandwich runs at midnight, big charity efforts to help the starving and the afflicted in the world, ie all the things our social services and governments don't do? Why hand out alms to the poor, run charities, open churches so the homeless can sleep in them overnight – ie pick up the social slack so atheists can still enjoy their NHS privileges?
What are they getting out of it?
Of course, it gives them a foothold in the fantasy world of good deeds the rest of us live in. Christ as the Easter Bunny.
The rest of us might be worse off if they stopped those activities, but, really, a new Pope could make a start in ensuring that such self-regarding activity is simply not tolerated.