The men emerging into the courtyard of the old stone prison are blinking in the bright sun light, stretching long-shackled limbs and speaking in low, bewildered whispers. They savour these moments in the unaccustomed air. And then they break into song. “Oh what pleasure, in the air of freedom, to breathe easily once more.” One voice soars above the others: “We shall, with all our faith, trust in the help of God.”
This scene is from Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio, and is one of the most sublime moments in all opera (in my humble opinion!) It is known as the Prisoners’ Chorus and depicts a moment of hope and the potential for freedom after a long period of suffering.
At a recent Wednesday morning Eucharist we were discussing liberation and I asked each person present to think of an image, an event or a circumstance that expressed what the word liberation meant to them. Some people talked about retirement as a liberation from work, others shared how the death of a loved one after long and painful illness felt like a liberation, however sad the event itself.
Perhaps Beethoven had the prophet Isaiah in mind when he wrote the Prisoners’ Chorus. “In a time of favour I have answered you… saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘show yourselves.’” (Isaiah 49.8-9) There is no doubt that God offers ‘liberation’ to His people and as Christians we understand that we have been ‘liberated’ by Christ; but what does this liberation actually mean to us in the real world?
All the various ideas the Wednesday congregation shared together involved being freed from some form of painful restraint, though not, I’m pleased to say, from actual imprisonment. What is it that Christ liberates us from through his death and resurrection? Last month I wrote that it is not always advisable to try to ‘look behind the curtain’ to see how the crucifixion ‘works’. It can lead to some ideas which seem to me to distort the central and overwhelming message of love and hope that I find in the Gospel.
A wonderful Christian writer called Michael Mayne, a former Dean of Westminster, once said this about why Jesus was crucified: “Some have thought it was because God demanded a kind of blood sacrifice,that somehow Jesus came to placate an angry God who demanded suffering before he would forgive human beings their sins. What afear some, pagan idea!”
Michael Mayne thinks that the Crucifixion is about two liberating ideas: firstly that Jesus entered into it willingly for the sake of love, and secondly that this self-sacrificing love tells us something about the nature of God.
For me the Easter message of liberation and hope for all of us involves taking seriously the idea of God’s holiness. If we have spent time inLent examining ourselves and thinking about our own faults, lacks and deficits, we can sometimes forget to look up at the holiness of God.This is not an abstract idea. Christ himself is the reality of that holiness in human form. As such he was prepared to give up all his privileges as the Holy One of God in order to enter fully into the the experience of being human; to show solidarity with human suffering; to show His unendingly loving and suffering heart but also to experience what it means to be apart from God – to be prepared to be ‘unholy’ in fact – in order to transform human experience. He showed us that being prepared to give up one’s privileges, at whatever painful cost, is a way of overcoming our separation from God, a separation that imprisons us in cells of our making. “My chains fell off, my heart was free…” wrote Charles Wesley. What else can we do this Easter but rise, go forth and follow Him?