Sun rising on three Christian crosses.

Paul Hopkins: When I’d ball my eyes out for poor Jesus

In the Catholic upbringing of my youth, there was no more an austere day than Good Friday. Curtains were drawn – as respect for the death of Christ – we kids were not allowed play football out on the road – indeed, play at all – and the fledging Radio Telefis Eireann did not broadcast any programmes, though my mother left the TV switched on, the screen permanently showing a painting of the Crucifixion, a Caravaggio or a Diego Velazquez.

My brother and I would stare intently at the picture on the box and I, feeling so sorry for the poor man Jesus, would promise to give up me 'auld sins' and be good. My mother, meantime, resigned herself to her ‘sacrifice’, that there would be no episode of The Fugitive that night and Richard Kimble’s pursuit of the one-armed man would have to wait for another week.

There were the obligatory Stations of the Cross – not online as with Covid – my mother taking us to the church at 3pm, the time of day Christ drew his last breath, and we would go from one depiction of His agony to another, trying hard to ball our eyes out for Christ's pitiful plight.

Back then there was never ever any doubt that God did exist, that Jesus did die on the Cross to give us eternal life, and that we would be damned to Hell if we did not believe.

Since then Ireland has grown up. We can laugh at the exploits of Father Ted and Mrs Brown’s Boys. The Catholic Church and its religious orders have been outed, not least in recent time with the horrific stories of Mother & Baby homes and correctional institutions. Married priests or those silenced by the Vatican because they dared speak the truth are now no bother to us, and we Catholics no longer breed like rabbits because Rome dictates contraception is wrong.

Even if there were no pandemic, churches would still be half empty, some demolished or sold off, and 700,000 people, north and south, say they have "no religion at all".

Where do we now stand on Jesus might be a good question to ponder this Holy Week. Do we still believe He was the Son of God? Died and rose again? Do we believe that He even existed?

Such contentions have been argued for centuries by philosophers and theologians from Francis of Assisi to Martin Luther, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to Richard Dawkins.

There is more evidence that Jesus of Nazareth certainly lived than for most famous figures of the ancient past. This evidence is of two kinds, according to the noted historian Paul L Maier: internal and external, or, if you will, sacred and secular. "In both cases, the total evidence is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus' existence," says Maier.

On the sacred front, the most detailed record of Jesus’ life and ministry is recorded in the (known) Gospels. In addition, a number of early non-Christian sources name Him. That a few simple men, the four, arguably five, Gospel writers, should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in those Gospels.

Irish historian John Dominic Crossan, however, would argue with the ministry and divinity of Jesus. Crossan, who studied for the priesthood in America and was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity by Maynooth, is a notable advocate for a 'non-eschatological view' of Jesus, a view that Christ was just an apocalyptic preacher.

Co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, now a global organisation of revisionist Biblical scholars, Crossan says Jesus was an "exploited peasant with an attitude" who didn't perform many miracles, physically rise from the dead or die as punishment for humanity's sins.

Jesus was extraordinary because of how he lived, not died, says Crossan, a native of Tipperary. "I cannot imagine a more miraculous life than non-violent resistance to violence," Crossan says. "I cannot imagine a bigger miracle than a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square."

But let’s leave the last word to Albert Einstein, the German-born physicist who asserted: "I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life."

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