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In the Christian calendar, this is the weekend that commemorates the hinge of history, when the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ began a new epoch in human existence. It is fitting that it is annually recapitulated with the transition from the somber season of Lent to the joyous one of Easter, stretching all the way through Ascension to Pentecost. Prevented as many of us are this year from attending Holy Week and Easter services, we may feel trapped in a Lent with no end in sight. But Easter arrives all the same, just as Christ slipped into human history almost unnoticed at first beyond the shores of the Galilee and the city of Jerusalem.
Once again, we need some perspective. The psalmist writes that “the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100), but that does not mean the world offers easy, sunlit paths.
Christian history itself shows us not only setbacks but utter failure and collapse in some times and places. Did you know the Uyghurs were once Christians before they were Muslims? I didn’t, before picking up Philip Jenkins’s The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died (2008). As Jenkins writes, Christians “have long been accustomed to seeing the expansion of their faith as a fundamental expectation.” But the complete or near-complete disappearance of Christianity from vast expanses of the earth, in many places after centuries of flourishing, is a lesson that “Christianization . . . is not an inevitable process, nor a one-way road.”
Two books that give us a glimpse of the internecine strife of which Christians are capable—both set in England during the Reformation—can make us grateful for the relatively healthy state of ecumenism among Christians today. The first is H.F.M. Prescott’s 1952 novel The Man on a Donkey, a sweeping chronicle of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the upheavals of Protestant enthusiasm, and the tragedy of the “Pilgrimage of Grace” undertaken by the Catholics of northern England. The second is Evelyn Waugh’s brief biography of Edmund Campion: Jesuit and Martyr (1935), the brilliant young Oxford scholar who left Elizabethan England to become a Jesuit priest and returned incognito to his native land to minister to the Catholic faithful, with a sadly predictable result. Waugh presented his book as “a simple, perfectly true story of heroism and holiness,” and it ranks among his most powerful works.
Do you need something more encouraging than these? I understand. Then read Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014), one of the most important works of intellectual history of the last decade. Taking his story only as far as the fifteenth century, Siedentop shows two things. First, that Christianity revolutionized the morality of the ancient western world by prizing the dignity of the individual human being, made in the image of God, regardless of sex, class, race, nationality, wealth, or power. Second, that the ingredients for the emergence of free societies founded on equal rights and limiting the power of government were all present in western thought before the arrival of “modernity,” that bête noire of liberalism’s critics.
Finally, we must bear in mind that Christianity—precisely through the redemptive power of the crucifixion and the resurrection—gave the world a new understanding of love. In the Easter season particularly we should turn our thoughts to what it means to obey the commandment that we love one another. A wonderful place to begin is C.S. Lewis’s wise little book The Four Loves (1960), which considers the different kinds of love denominated by the four Greek words storgē (affection), philia (friendship), eros (sexual or romantic passion), and agapē (charity or Christian love). This book began as a series of four radio talks in 1958; recordings of those talks survive and can be freely downloaded from the internet. Lewis’s reflections on agapē as the love to which all other loves point are simple and compelling. And listening to him think these things through is a real delight.
We Christians must suffer through our Lents, however short or long they are. Sometimes they can be stormy seasons, or ages spent in empty wastes. But we are Easter people, with our faces turned toward the springtime sun that we love, and toward the Son who taught us how to love.