I’ve been thinking about the rarity in our lives, overall, of moments when we can really celebrate some triumph. I mean the champagne, flag-waving kind of celebration that you get from winning an Olympic Final, or that an old-fashioned army got returning from a victorious battle before war became politically complicated as well as efficiently bloody.
If we’re blessed, we may see “solid achievements” in our lives, if the effort we’ve put in at our university studies gets us the grades we wanted, or we can see growth in the church or business for which we have laboured assiduously. But it’s far less common to get the “Whoopee” moment when the girl of our dreams says “Yes” to our unconfident proposal, or we get the Sony recording contract after ten years of graft. And even the successes are balanced out by dead-ends, disappointments and rejections.
I suppose it’s the sharing of celebration that makes the difference. I remember the day my A-level results came out, and my small circle of friends, all successful, spontaneously got together to enjoy the fact that school was done, and we could all go to university. Life had suddenly changed, ostensibly for the better.
At the extreme is the original tacky, but dramtically inevitable, Star Wars ending, in which our Heroes having destroyed the Death Star, the entire universe gathers to applaud them and, presumably, give them a nice shiny medal and a bottle of fizz, or something equally memorable.
Watson and Crick experienced the thrill of discovery when they realised the structure of DNA, but they famously celebrated at the Eagle in Bene’t Street, by telling the lunchers there they’d discovered the secret of life. To which, I suppose, the response was, if anything at all, “And the rest! Another half-pint?” I suspect I had more of a public backslapping in the pub across the road from the hospital the day my twins were born, though the celebration was limited by the fact I was on call for acute medicine, and even the two pints of Abbott Ale I’d been pressured to imbibe were regretted when the phone rang from the admission ward.
For Watson and Crick, though, it must have been something else (other than monetary reward) when the discovery was celebrated at the 1962 Nobel Prizegiving. I guess it was the medal and the fizz. Any real celebration needs a medal and some fizz. So I guess it would have been kind of ideal for them if, down at the Eagle that first day, word had got out and the whole of Cambridge Academia (and the porters) had begun to fill the place, leading to an all-night party and someone important leading three cheers and a rousing chorus of “For they’re a jolly good fellow,” before producing a gold trophy from somewhere behind the bar.
Life doesn’t work that way though, usually, even when you discover the secret of life. But my contemplation led me to consider the greatest victory of all time, and how that was celebrated. At least you’d expect a Star Wars moment for that.
I refer, of course, to the victory of Christ, rising triumphantly from the grave after the conflict of his life and sacrificial death. By that one, ultimately heroic, act, Jesus defeated death, achieved eternal life, reversed the curse of sin, destroyed the deception of the devil, disarmed the powers, and inaugurated the entirely new cosmic creation delayed since Adam’s failure in the garden of Eden, thus paving the way for the glory of God to be all in all. You’d expect a medal and some champagne in pretty short order after all that, surely?
Contrast what we actually see in the gospels. Matthew has that mysterious hint of saints raised (temporarily?) and wandering around Jerusalem. But apart from that, the cast was limited to one or two seated angels whose main role, it seems, was to tell the disciples at the tomb that they’d just missed him. He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, looking like the gardener, which tells us, at least, that he was alone and on foot too early for anyone to be visiting the place for pleasure.
His resurrection appearances were equally modest – he turned up in the upper room, or by the lake of Galilee, or once, according to the earliest record we have, that of Paul in Galatians, to five hundred of the brethren. But even there, it seems, he “made an appearance”, rather than celebrating a triumph with a delegation of a few million of the angelic host who must have been celebrating infinitely more rapturously in heaven than they customarily do over one sinner who repents.
Now this situation was temporary, it is true. After forty days Jesus was taken up to heaven, where he was declared in power to be ruler of the kings of the earth, and where he reigns at the right hand of the Father in glory. But those forty days tell us a great deal about the character of God, if we have ears to hear.
The priority of the risen Christ was the need of his friends, the nascent church. The Star Wars finale, or the Nobel Prize Ceremony, was available to him on a cosmic scale, in response to a cosmic victory over every evil. But he chose instead the quiet moments of explanation and companionship with those he considered to have shared in his travail – and even of reconciliation for their human failure at the point of crisis. It was lunch as usual at the Eagle, without even the vainglory of announcing to the world at large that he had discovered the secret of life.
Even though he had, and Watson and Crick hadn’t, actually.