When he was nothing but a suspended carcass, dripping with his own blood and other people’s spit, there were no worshippers around clapping their hands and singing their hymns. They were long gone. At the very end, ironically at the moment of greatest triumph, he had no followers left. That says something profoundly counterintuitive about what a successful church looks like. For if the core of the Christian message – death first, then resurrection – is so existentially full-on that nobody can possibly endure it, then a church that successfully proclaims that message is likely to be empty and not full. Which is also why, quite possibly, a successful priest ought to be hated rather than feted. For here, as elsewhere in the Christian story, success and failure are inverted. The first will be last and the last first. The rich are cast down and the poor are exulted. The true king is crowned with mockery and thorns not with gold and ermine.
Christianity, properly understood, is a religion of losers – the worst of playground insults. For not only do we not want to be a loser, we don’t want to associate with them either. We pointedly shun losers, as if some of their loser-ness might rub off on us. Or rather, more honestly, we shun them because others might recognise us as among their number. And because we secretly fear that this might actually be true, we shun them all the more viciously, thus to distance ourselves all the more emphatically. And so the cock crows three times.
But it is true. Deep failure, the failure of our lives, is something we occasionally contemplate in the middle of the night, in those moments of terrifying honesty before we get up and dress for success. Ecce homo, said Pilate. Behold, the man. This is humanity. And the facade of success we present to the world is commonly a desperate attempt to ward off this knowledge. At the beginning of Lent, Christians are reminded of this in the most emphatic of ways: know that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Those who used the period of Lent to give things up are invited to live life stripped bare, experiencing humanity in the raw, without the familiar props to our ego. This has nothing to do with the avoidance of chocolate and everything to do with facing the unvarnished truth about human failure. There is no way 100 top business leaders would endorse the cross. It is life without the advertising, without the accoutrements of success. It is life on a zero-hours contract, where at any moment we can be told we are not needed.
But here’s the thing (continue reading)