Good Friday and Easter Sunday are occasions when I become particularly aware of the Church as a community. We come together in front of the mystery of suffering, and the mystery of resurrection. Community carries the meaning of a diversity coming together as one. But it is interesting to consider how this unity is founded on the natural condition of the human race.
First, of course, we are all blood relations. The geneticists tell us that we share the same maternal and paternal inheritance. It is true that their “Adam and Eve” did not live at the same time, but that we are all relations through common ancestry is well established.
We need to go back to Aristotle to see explicit recognition of ourselves as social animals. We are necessarily interdependent, and we need to arrange our affairs in accordance with that if we are to flourish. Indeed we could derive this conclusion from the social commandments, which are in effect a list of instructions on what to avoid in order to live together fruitfully.
This is a deep point of contact for the human race; it shares a broad view not only that there is right and wrong, but also there is a commonality about what constitutes right and wrong. This may not always be apparent. But the sceptical philosophers who set out to deny this – from Hume to Ayer – show sub-cutaneous acceptance in the way they live their own lives. And if we disagree in some instances about our moral conclusions, we are still able to discuss them constructively because we recognise each other’s moral insights.
Our instincts here are supported by inherited characteristics. One of the strongest moral influences on us arises from the culture in which we live. We do not need deep insight to see how our own views have been influenced – by no means always for the best – over a period of time. We must accept that our brains send us warning signals when we go against the crowd. While these signals are broadly necessary for the stability of a society, their arationality requires our rational confirmation or rejection.
Our tendency towards altruism normally provides an important benefit, which is why it has developed through evolution. It is also arational, and so requires our conscious confirmation. But it does in turn lead us to an important human characteristic: theory of mind.
Theory of mind is quite simply our apparent ability to interpret what is going on in other persons’ minds. “Apparent” because it is fallible, but useful as a working hypothesis. Without it, empathy would be impossible and the “golden rule” of do-as-you-would-be-done-by would be nullified. We know that our response to other people’s feelings and actions may be mirrored in our brains. And a recent study shows the wide range of subtle facial expressions which can be accurately recognised.
So, if all the hard evidence shows the unity derived from our creation through the image and likeness of God, how do we understand this in terms of the Church? The answer is wonderful. Paul speaks to us of the mystical body of the Church. It has a variety of members but, like a human body, every member is needed by the whole. And the unity is cemented by love. The briefest reading of his account both inspires and depresses, for few of us live up to it. But Paul has more to say, elsewhere.
“And I live, now not I; but Christ lives in me.” – our unity lies in our real identity in Christ. And I shudder because I doubt how well the outside world sees that in me. He tells us that his sufferings fill up “those things that are wanting in the sufferings of Christ.” That is a strange statement. But the message is clear: it tells us that our suffering has now become part of the redemption. Not a single pang is wasted, not a single pang is without meaning. The mystery of suffering has foxed many people, but the real mystery lies in how our personal suffering and Christ’s suffering is one entity common to us all. We are there on the cross too. That is the final identity we share.
I recall vividly the occasion when I realised this. I was attending a Requiem Mass for the young wife of a friend of mine. I was trying to understand the meaning of this cruel tragedy. Then, at the Elevation, I saw it. Like so many mysterious things, sometimes only poetry can explain an understanding, and so I wrote this to capture the moment. If you are not sure who is speaking: me, or the husband, or Christ, you are reading it aright.
This is my body, the high priest said,
And my blood, as he proffered the wine;
And I trembled in front of the chalice
For I saw the body was mine.
I had thought the price of my passion
Had satisfied sin and had won,
But the bread on the table was broken
With suffering still to be done.
I had known the scourge and the nailing
I had known the rack of the tree;
And I saw them again in the chalice
Which the high priest offered to me.