Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Holy Week is jolly good now we've ditched religion

The Queen
The Queen

There will be a little bit of religion in the public square this week, but it won't be too taxing. Anyone who wants to ignore what is traditionally called Holy Week can easily do so.

Maybe this is a positive development: or, at least, maybe it's better than Holy Week in times gone by. Older folk will remember Lent: when virtually everyone was expected to give up the drink for the duration, while children had no choice but to quit eating sweets.

Holy Week was, up to the 1970s, Lent in overdrive: the BBC's Holy Week service was sombre and Good Friday, in particular, allowed for no levity, under the specific orders of BBC founding father Lord Reith.

The BBC still broadcasts the Good Friday liturgy on radio and there will be an item about the Queen distributing Maundy money to pensioners on Holy Thursday, so a residual echo has been preserved of what was once a full-on faith tradition.

Is the disappearance, or at least the marked diminution, of Holy Week as a collective experience a triumph for secularism and for diversity of choice? Or is it, more probably, a victory for consumerism, capitalism and greed?

The traditional way of observing Holy Week was conformist and coercive. All public sources of jollity were shut on Good Friday, whether you liked it, or not. And whether you were Christian, Jew, or atheist (although Easter often coincides with Jewish Passover, not coincidentally, since Jesus was Jewish).

I remember, as a teenager, sneaking off to the movies on the Wednesday of Holy Week – known as Spy Wednesday. I remember the movie, too: The King and I.

And I recall the near-empty cinema and the strong sense of guilt I experienced at indulging in a pleasurable activity in what was supposed to be a week of penance.

On Good Friday, I was not allowed to turn on the radio until after 3pm: silence was to be observed in the house. I now look back on this as an interesting discipline in reflectiveness.

Of course, Holy Week was somewhat gloomy and rather in contrast to religious activities in some of the Latin countries – the almost pagan processions in Spain, with their melodramatic simulacra of crucifixions. We did with austerity what the Mediterraneans did with colourful flourish.

Yet, when public rituals are discarded, something is lost. Certainly, we can withdraw into our private space and observe any religious ritual we choose, but that defeats the whole point of community and of sharing what was, basically, a cycle of life.

The point of Jewish ritual, it is often said, is not to make you especially devout, but to make you remember. The high holy days of Judaism are all about telling a story and transmitting that story from older generations to young generations, in a rite that usually involves meals and the family sitting down together.

Christian rituals are also about a story, but it is not just the religious story of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection: it is also the story of people fasting and feasting throughout history.

If we forget these cycles of nature, as well as historical narratives of faith, we lose touch with something essential and basic in the human story.

Yet it's significant that, while this generation has, for the most part, thrown out the collective observance of Lent, we have retained our attachment to First Holy Communions.

But then First Holy Communion celebrations chime much more harmoniously with our rites of purchase. There is so much to buy: frocks, accessories, party stuff.

Now, that's the spirit of the age.

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