Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Come Together

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Come Together

Article excerpt

'That's the power of ritual, ' said the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, on Thought for the Day last week. He was thinking particularly of the Jewish festival of Passover with its ritual gathering of the family to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs as a re-enactment of the experience of exile and slavery.

'It's an expression of collective memory and shared ideals . . . an annual reminder of what it felt like to be oppressed.'

His words were striking precisely because ritual is so often regarded with suspicion these days, signifying rigid, backward, inclusive thinking. Yet these simple acts of representation done in unison (whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim) allow us to become acquainted with loss, bereavement, betrayal.

It's also useful to be reminded not just occasionally but also regularly and repeatedly of the sacrifices made in the past. By them, we are shaped. We are also not immune.

The Easter story, of suffering, sacrifice and rebirth, is the most powerful of Christian narratives, much more so than Christmas. As told in the gospels, its powerfully affecting impact is created through the accumulation of unadorned and yet extraordinarily vivid detail - the donkey, the High Priest's ear, the crowing cock, the sponge with bitter wine, the rending of the Temple curtain - each one building on what's gone before.

This explains the power of Bach's St Matthew Passion, where the musical intensity increases as the story unfolds. On Radio 3 on Palm Sunday the performance came live from Krakow, adding a particular potency to the experience of listening, knowing what sufferings that city has experienced in the not-so-distant past. The ritual of telling the gospel in words and music is an opportunity not to forget, but with the hope of resolution.

Radio 2 also told the story straight in At the Foot of the Cross 'hosted' by Ken Bruce on Good Friday. Music from the Messiah was interwoven with the readings. But on Radio 4 the Good Friday Liturgy gave us instead a personal meditation on grief and bereavement. In itself this can be moving, but the power of the ritual is lost, for, as Lord Sacks reminded us, that impact lies in the simple telling, the almost-exact repetition.

On Radio 4 Extra through Holy Week and Easter there's been a timely replay of Don Taylor's 12-part series about the English Civil War, first made in 1988. It's hard for us now to imagine the bloody religious strife of three centuries ago; 'that so much holiness should produce so much blood'. …

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