We are officially in transition. Blustering Boris has rolled the dice and, under pressure from libertarian back-bench Tory MPs, has decided to scrap all domestic COVID restrictions; goodbye to face coverings, and hello again to indoor gatherings and night clubs. Unsurprisingly COVID infection numbers are doubling every week or so. The numbers of those pinged to self-isolate is going through the roof, and it now includes Boris and Rishi Sunak since the new Health Secretary went down with COVID. Sajid Javid was an odd appointment: he seems to know [and care] more about the state of the economy than the nation’s health. The general consensus is that hapless Hancock’s very public fall from grace lets a lot of people off the hook. Boris can now blame bad decision making throughout the epidemic on the departed Hancock. While not having to summon up the strength to fire him. And Hancock himself, now said to be living in a very small bubble on the South Coast with Mrs CocaCola, may no longer have to answer questions about cronyism, and the way that contracts for PPE were awarded to his family and friends [and local pub landlord].
Domestically transition has not made an enormous difference to us. We have had Susie’s cousins to tea, new friends to dinner, and an old friend from Balliol and his wife to lunch. Much of the eating taking place in the garden. Summer has arrived with long days of sunshine and temperatures climbing steadily to around 23ºC. Since the tempestuous rains that have devastated parts of Belgium and West Germany have not [yet] arrived, we are into regular watering. I see that the German floods are described here in the press as ‘biblical’, a word otherwise not much in use.
Outwith the house I have been out a couple of times with a walking group from St Peter’s. The first outing was to a corner of the Pentlands that was new to me; a circular walk from the bus terminus at Torphin, across the former golf course, round Torduff and Cubbiedean reservoirs, now both disused, and back again past Torphin quarry. Then last week we walked on the south Fife coast, from Elie to St Monan’s. It is just over two hours on the X60 bus to Elie, across the bridge and through a succession of little Fife villages, but thereafter a glorious walk by the sea.
Elie is a distinctly classy place, full of dignified, second homes for Edinburgh folk. More than a decade ago I applied, thoughtlessly, for a post-retirement job there, as non-stipendiary Rector of Elie and Pittenweem. We had been ten years or so in Lyon, and thought that this might be a way of getting back to Scotland while Susie’s Mum was still alive in Edinburgh. We came over from Lyon, and were graciously put up in a B&B and taken out to dinner by a couple of families on the Friday night. That was the best bit. The following day we were shown the church at Elie, a tin tab dating from c. 1908.
There was a harmonium played by the last Rector but two. His wife turned the pages, but “he wouldn’t play any of those modern choruses”. They couldn’t remember when they last had a baptism. The subsequent interview went badly wrong. I did a presentation on how to grow a small congregations. Which didn’t provoke much interest. They asked if I would be bored there. I think I said that I would enjoy walking the coastal path with a dog. They asked about midweek activities. I suggested maybe a prayer meeting No great interest. Then a Midweek Communion. No real response. With a bring-and-share lunch to follow. Hmmm. Finally I suggested that we might have a midweek group on How to die graciously ?. That was really the end of the interview. And I went home, chastened but happy, to Lyon. With hindsight I think that was ‘failed transition’.
In his On being a Christian [see TaGD 47], Hans Küng suggests that novelists and poets often have a deeper insight into Jesus’s person and ministry than theologians. In this connection one of the books that he mentions is Barabbas, a novel by the Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist. I had never heard of the book nor of its author [the book won the Nobel prize for literature in 1951]. But thanks to Abe Books I was able to track down a second-hand copy in North America. Barabbas is the notorious prisoner released by Pilate at the demand of the crowd [Matthew 27: 11-26]. Lagerkvist tells us the story of the man whose life was exchanged for that of Jesus, and begins with the crucifixion which Barabbas witnesses with his own eyes on the hill of Golgotha. It is quite a short book, written [or at any rate translated from Swedish] into uncomplicated English.
Barabbas is quite simply a man condemned to have no God. Although, as Christian readers of the book, we might feel that God is calling him directly on numerous occasions. His response to the crucifixion is to get drunk with strangers in a tavern. One of the women speaks of the crucified man, who mixed mainly with the poor and promised to open the kingdom of God even to harlots. And she recalls him telling a story about people invited to a big wedding feast. The following day he meets a big, red-haired Galilean man, who speaks of the coming of a new age, and of his guilt about having fled the Master in his time of trial. But Barabbas is recognised and driven away.
The next day Barabbas witnesses the stone rolled away and the now empty tomb. He encounters a girl with a hare-lip who was evidently a follower of the dead man, who whispers to him ‘The saviour is risen’. And of his injunction ‘Love one another’. A few days later he sees the same girl down by the Dung Gate, her sallow face turned to the light, witnessing to her Lord and Savour. The girl is prosecuted for blasphemy, and Barabbas watches with horror as she is led to the stoning pit. After dark he retrieves her lacerated corpse, and carried it across the desert of Juda to lay it, guided by the old man hermit, in the grave beside the body of her dead child.
The following years are uncertain. Barabbas is a changed person. No longer the bold, reckless leader of a criminal gang. Now he is given to just sitting, staring into space. And then he disappears.
Some years later Barabbas is a slave in the Cyprian copper mines, a hellish existence that only the toughest survive. He is chained day and night to a tall Armenian with protuberant eyes. Sahak is a follower of the crucified rabbi. He is astonished, and envious, to learn that Barabbas had seen God and witnessed the events at Golgotha. He secretly shows his slaves’s disc to Barabbas, inscribed with the sign of the crucified one. And he engraves the same symbols on Barabbas’s disc.
Now Barabbas knows that he too is God’s slave. But it is not a straight-forward journey. The two slaves are released from the darkness of the mine to work in the fields. They have escaped from the hell of the underground. But they are no longer able to pray together. As they had done down in the mine. One day they are summoned by the Roman Governor. Sahak refuses to renounce his God and to swear allegiance to Caesar. Barabbas equivocates. He is commended by the Governor for his good sense. But he is also forced to witness the crucifixion of his [only] friend.
The story ends in Rome. The governor retires and takes certain slaves with him. Barabbas gets to hear of the meetings of the brethren, the followers of the Master. One night he gets lost in the darkness of the catacombs. The realm of the dead. Out of the darkness come tongues of fire. Is it the Master’s return ? The book ends in the prison under the Capitol. The Christians who have been accused of starting the great fire are prisoners, and Barabbas is with them. In the prison he meets again the now white-haired Galilean, to whom he tells his story. The older man senses his unhappiness and refuses to condemn him for his lack of faith.
And they are led out to be crucified …
I have always been a bit dismissive of historical fiction. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize-winning novels have never attracted me. And back in the 1960s. I never wanted to read Morris West’s The Steps of the Fisherman. But I am glad to have discovered this book. The biblical background is accurate. Lagerkvist’s account of Golgotha and of the empty tomb sounds right. The red-haired Galilean is clearly Peter. The fate of the girl with the hare lip is similar to the story of Stephen’s martyrdom. The mysterious gap in the history of Barabbas recalls the period of three years [Galatians 1] that lapsed between Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road and his going up to Jerusalem to meet with the disciples.
The dominant theme of the book is Barabbas’s equivocation. Is Barabbas a man condemned to have no God ? Christos Iesus is carved on the disc hung from his neck, but at key moments he cannot affirm his faith. Once released from the darkness, he cannot pray. He can only say ‘I want to believe’. Which in my experience is the situation of many people in our world today. And I would want to be guided by the aged Peter’s refusal to condemn him. André Gide, who contributes a preface to my Vintage paperback edition, finds an ambiguity in the final words: “To thee I deliver up my soul”. To darkness ? Or to Christ ?
It seems that there is a 1961 film of Barabbas, with a screenplay by Christopher Fry and [uncredited] Nigel Balchin with Anthony Quinn in the title role. And Harry Andrews as Peter. It might be fun to track down a copy somewhere. But meanwhile I am going back to Musselburgh for another dental appointment, and then to have lunch with David Smith in Glasgow, and to walk from Haddington along the river to East Linton. All while the sun is shining !