Despite the march of the secular world, why the Easter story still resonates with many
Growing up in 1960s Ireland, belief in God and the Resurrection of Christ were a given for the masses. How things have changed, writes Paul Hopkins
Before I came to live and work in Northern Ireland I had known only three Protestants in my lifetime of half-a-century. There was a fellow called Gerry who married my godmother Maria and they took the assisted passage to Australia when I was still in short pants.
Then there was Walter Laird from Newry, who married my older cousin Jean and whom I still see at the occasional family gathering. And there was my teenage pal Wesley Pierrepoint, grandson of Albert, the last hangman in England. We fell out when he stole a girl I fancied and last I heard he was still a clergyman in the Church of Ireland.
When I 'came up', as they say, back in 2007 I was surprised at the number of people in relationships who were from different religious backgrounds. I was also surprised, much to my shame, that Protestants actually celebrated Easter and Holy Week. And I was taken aback by the fervour with which Catholics went about their religious duties.
I suppose I had never really thought about it - Protestants celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus, that is.
As a young Catholic growing up in the Ireland of the 1960s I thought Holy Week belonged solely to us, the "one true Church". I thought my pal Wesley lucky to avoid Holy Week, a pretty-much austere affair - my father, in particular, constantly beating his breast and spending all his spare time in church, all the while fighting the demons of doubt as to whether God existed and if he didn't believe, or couldn't, he would go to Hell.
There was no more austere day than Good Friday. Curtains were drawn out of respect for the death of Christ. We kids were not allowed to play football out on the road - indeed, play at all - and the fledging Radio Telefis Eireann did not broadcast any programmes, though my mother left the TV switched on, the screen permanently showing a painting of the Crucifixion, a Caravaggio or a Diego Velazquez.
Not being let do owt else, my brother and I would stare intently at the picture on the box and I, feeling so sorry for the poor man Jesus, would promise to give up me "auld sins" and be good. My mother, meantime, resigned herself to her sacrifice, that there would be no episode of The Fugitive airing that night and that Dr Richard Kimble's pursuit of the one-armed man would have to wait for another week.
There were the obligatory Stations of the Cross, my mother taking my brother and me to the church at 3pm, the time of day Christ drew his last breath, and we would go from one depiction of His agony to another, mumbling Our Fathers by the dozen and trying hard to bawl our eyes out for Christ and his pitiful plight.
Looking back now, Good Friday was the kind of scenario that became the calling card of the comedian Dave Allen in the 1970s as he trounced tradition and the sanctimonious hypocrisy that was the hallmark of the Catholic Church back then.
Whatever our beliefs and - Catholic and arrogant, perhaps - attitudes back then, there was never ever any doubt in our hearts and minds that God did exist, that Jesus did die on the Cross to give us eternal life, and that we would be damned to Hell if we did not believe.
Since then Ireland has grown up somewhat. We can laugh at the exploits of Father Ted and Mrs Brown's Boys.
The Catholic Church and its religious order have been well and truly outed, not least in recent time with the horrific stories of mother and baby homes and correctional institutions, north and south.
Married priests or those silenced by the Vatican because they dared speak the truth are now no bother to us, and we Catholics no longer breed like rabbits because Rome dictates contraception is wrong.
Churches are half-empty, some, both sides of the border, demolished or sold off, and 700,000 people, north and south, say they have "no religion at all"; we are open about gay relationships and new-style family units - no longer do we "live in sin" - and the recent death of Bishop Eamonn Casey did not by any means merit the laudable comments it would have done a generation ago.
Heck, even the irreligious Millennials have a soft spot for Pope Francis, fighting hard to rescue his Church from its bad Press
Most of my ageing contemporaries now look to quantum and string theories, and bow to Richard Dawkins, to find meaning, if any, to it all, no more so than when the inevitability of their own mortality suddenly becomes more real than it did half a lifetime ago.
So, where do we stand on Jesus might be a good question to ponder on this Holy Week. Do we believe He was the Son of God, that He could perform miracles, that He died for us?
Do we believe that He even existed at all?
Such contentions have been argued for centuries by philosophers and theologians, from Francis of Assisi to Martin Luther to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
It would appear there is more evidence that Jesus of Nazareth certainly lived than for most famous figures of the ancient past.
This evidence is of two kinds, according to the noted historian Paul L Maier: internal and external. Or, if you will, sacred and secular. "In both cases, the total evidence is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus' existence," says Maier.
On the sacred front, the most detailed record of Jesus' life and ministry is recorded in the Gospels. In addition, a number of early non-Christian sources name Him. That a few simple men, the four Gospel writers, should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in those Gospels.
Irish historian John Dominic Crossan, however, would argue with the ministry and divinity of Jesus. Crossan is a notable advocate for a non-eschatological view of Jesus, a view that contradicts the more common view that Christ was an apocalyptic preacher. Co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, an organisation of revisionist Biblical scholars, Crossan says Jesus was an "exploited peasant with an attitude" who didn't perform many miracles, physically rise from the dead or die as punishment for humanity's sins. Jesus was extraordinary because of how he lived, not died, says Crossan.
"I cannot imagine a more miraculous life than non-violent resistance to violence," Crossan says. "I cannot imagine a bigger miracle than a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square."
On the secular front, there is the testimony, among many, of Tacitus, considered to be one of the greatest of the ancient Roman historians. His Annals deal with the Roman Empire from 14AD to 68AD (Jesus died in 33AD). Tacitus wrote that when the great fire devastated Rome in 64AD the Emperor Nero was considered responsible. But Tacitus wrote that Nero accused the Christians. Then Tacitus adds: "Christus, the founder of the name (Christian), had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus."- Annals, XV, 44.
According to Dr Ken Dark, an archaeologist from Reading University, the ancient pilgrim text De Locus Sanctis, written in 670 AD by Irish monk Abbot Adomnan of Iona, set out key evidence identifying a house on a hillside in Nazareth as Jesus' first home. Writing in the Biblical Archaeological Review in March 2015, Dark explains that the ancient text from the Irish monk was written about a report given by Frankish Bishop Arculf on his pilgrimage to Nazareth. In the text, a reference is made to an ancient church "where once there was a house in which the Lord was nourished in his infancy". The report states the house was said to exist underneath the church and between two tombs.
There are tomes arguing for and against the historical Jesus and there are many like Crossan who argue against His divinity and again those like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins who deny the existence of God, and the divinity of Christ.
But let's leave the last word to Albert Einstein, the German-born Jewish physicist who asserted: "I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene."
When asked if he viewed Jesus as a historical person, he responded: "Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life."