Friday, April 22, 2011

Another Thursday

Yesterday was Maundy Thursday (also called “Holy Thursday”). I’ve been aware of that for as long as I’ve known about Good Friday—pretty much my whole life. My dad used to hold evening services on Maundy Thursday, but I don’t remember going most years, even the years when we lived next door to the church.

Still, despite the connection to my personal history, those days lost any other personal connection to me long ago. Earlier this week, I got an email from my sister wishing us a happy Palm Sunday; I’d completely forgotten about that. It was, in fact, a perfectly ordinary Sunday, though it started in Whitianga and included our trip home.

The same thing was true of yesterday: It was a perfectly ordinary Thursday, even if I did remember its religious significance. Well, it wasn’t entirely ordinary: Being the last workday before a four-day holiday weekend, it was more like a Friday. Nigel and I went out to dinner, which we wouldn’t normally do on a Thursday.

That would make today, Good Friday, more like a Saturday—and it does feel like one. But there’s a trading ban in effect today (and on Sunday), so nearly all shops are closed—and there are no commercials on TV—which makes it completely unlike a Saturday. Tomorrow will be a real Saturday in every sense.

Earlier this week, I saw an item on Yahoo! News about how Colin Humphreys, a professor at the University of Cambridge, suggested a calendar error had led to centuries of misunderstanding about this week. In the usual Christian understanding, the Last Supper was on Maundy Thursday, followed by the trip to Gethsemane, the betrayal, arrest, trial(s), crucifixion and burial—all before sundown on Friday. It’s a full day, to say the least.

Humphreys says he used a combination of biblical, historical and astronomical research to determine that the Last Supper was actually on Wednesday. His evidence is a little shaky, based on a claim different calendars were used by different people, but he says it explains the Christian Gospels’ contradictions about the day of the Last Supper. He said, "Many biblical scholars say that, for this reason [the contradictions], you can't trust the Gospels at all. But if we use science and the Gospels hand in hand, we can actually prove that there was no contradiction."

It seems to me that Humphreys is trying to provide “proof” that’s unnecessary, as in the old aphorism, to a non-believer, no proof is possible; to a believer no proof is necessary. It also strikes me as another attempt by someone to try and dismiss the real scholarship of sceptics.

Of course, there’s nothing more important to Christians than the stories of this week—their faith is based on them. But the stories are also extraordinary, not for the short timeframe, but because of the claim of death and resurrection. As another old saying has it, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and that is precisely why for non-believers, no proof is possible. Trying to smooth-out inconsistencies in various Christian bible accounts of the events of this week isn’t the same thing as proving any of it is true or actually happened.

This is probably one of the unbridgeable divides between Christian believers and non-believers (although, I know some Christian theologians have said the resurrection story is allegorical, not literal, and some non-believers may accept that explanation). Having been a believer myself, I know the meaning these days hold for Christians, and I respect that. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that believers respect the fact that to non-believers, these days are just ordinary days. Sometimes, a day can be just another day.

The painting above is a Russian icon, The Mystical Supper, by Simon Ushakov (1626–1686), one of Russia’s leading icon painters in the 17th Century. The painting, and the photo of it, are in the public domain.


Roger Owen Green said...

Of course, Lent/Easter's timing is all tied to pagan spring festivals and the full moon anyway.

Arthur Schenck said...

Very true. And, in turn, the Last Supper is tied to Passover in some way, though that academic is arguing the timing. Personally, I never thought the accuracy of the dates (like Christmas) were as important as the symbolism.