Early on Easter Sunday, the Exsultet (sung by the lovely voice of Rev. Oliver Brewer-Lennon) filled our house as I made porridge for my mum and placed daffodils, cards and Easter eggs on the breakfast table. The recording is so clear; the acoustics are very good in the Episcopal Cathedral of St Mary in Glasgow, where the Vice-Provost was singing.
In the fourth verse, which normally calls for a response from the congregation, there is an audible catch in his voice, at the word “friends”:
“My dearest friends, standing with me in this holy light,
join me in asking God for mercy,
that he may give his unworthy minister
grace to sing his Easter praises.”
His friends weren’t there. No-one was there. The cathedral, hugely popular with high church liberals and normally crowded at Easter, was empty.
This chiaroscuro of joy and sadness echoed throughout the day, as friends and family phoned and texted to wish us Happy Easter – and we heard “police are everywhere” from all over the UK; as I walked Ben my dog and greeted other happy dog walkers – and returned through our silent neighbourhood; as we discovered that, yes, the simnal cake has risen! And sent some up the road to family – simultaneously breaking the news of the shattered iPad which had been their gift, later discovering one of them sustained a painful but not life-threatening injury.
Police were out to stop people congregating. On Easter Sunday. Twitter (which I’d been off since St Valentine’s Day, when I sowed pollinator-friendly flowers) is full of complaints about officers breaching the 2 metre/ 6 foot prescribed personal space for non-cohabitants in order to harass or arrest those either breaching it – or just sitting peacefully alone on a park bench or in their front garden.
I don’t blame the police and, despite what I have written here about hospitals as the riskiest places on Earth at the moment, I don’t blame anyone who works in them. People tend to do what they’re told. I’m writing a book with the working title, Dread and Viruses: the Individual, the State and the Common Cold, contextualising this madness with a select history of ideas on political philosophy, and my first stop is Plato’s Republic. The watchdogs of the state follow orders from the Rulers and even skilled Workers are under their jurisdiction. It’s an open secret that profiteering businessmen and career bureaucrats rather than dedicated scientists are now in charge of biomedical research, publication and development – a previous book reveals how this affects science) – and how it is their guidelines that are followed. Not those based on the scientific cycle of hypothesis improved by re-focussed empirical research – or on common sense.
Despite the light and joy of Easter, there are many for whom yesterday was an occasion of profound sadness, all the harder to bear in the obscurity of solitude. Trusting citizens delivering up their loved ones to ambulances, never to see them again. Sons and daughters getting a cold response from nursing homes, where they fear their elderly relatives may be abandoned – shut up in their rooms by fearful staff.
The Exsultet is sung at the Easter Vigil, and the Gospel reading which follows contains the first words of the angel to the women witnessing the stone rolling away from the empty tomb:
“There is no need for you to be afraid.” (Matt. 28:5)
The penultimate verse of this song of joy express confident hope:
“Accept this Easter candle,
a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honour of God.
Let it mingle with the lights of heaven
and continue bravely burning
to dispel the darkness of this night!”
While I do not counsel breaching social distancing (as that would only increase the general paranoia) I do reiterate that a good theory must fit the facts – and not simply describe those that don’t as “puzzling” (still) – and if it doesn’t, then it should be replaced.
The message of Easter (even for non-believers) is that, out of an utter disaster, lessons may be learned and meaning may arise – and those most affected may find some comfort in solidarity.
If we are to allow that process to happen, we must be prepared to lose face, to make a volte-face, to turn, to convert our commitment away from profit and towards people – and in that metanoia, to turn out right.
In the midst of solitary fear and scientific obscurity, we need enlightenment. Even now, all over the world, clear-thinking people are conducting citizen research: reaching out, joining the dots and questioning the irrational official version of events.
Hope, evergreen, arises.
Thanks to Maliz Ong for releasing her photo “Yellow Candle” into the Public Domain. Other photos © Alan McManus