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A good man, poor thing

It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilisation.

Raymond Chandler wrote those words to throw light on the genre of the detective mystery he specialised in: the tragic consequences of shabby motives and unhappiness, investigated by a cynical anti-hero. Chandler's allusion to the Crucifixion, and its influential place within western civilisation, suggests what the judicial murder of Jesus Christ would look like in the Gospel according to Philip Marlowe.

In Chandler's hands, the death on the cross remains a universal symbol. But it is transformed into an icon of pointlessness. A powerful, resonant icon, in its own way, for a disenchanted society squinting at its lost innocence: the good man who, fatally, did not recognise the futility of his energetic efforts; the perils of not enough self-consciousness.

A good man, poor thing, killed for asking people to be perfect, when they shrink from being even slightly improved. To die for this is to die for too little because selfless love is here believed to bring with it no insight of momentous importance. As we say, no saving grace. The gospel according to Marlowe asks us to consider the lilies and birds of the fields: if they are plucked up and shot down for so little, why should we expect the plot of humanity to have any more grandeur?

The argument may be about pointlessness but it raises a pointed question: What would have to be true for the death of Jesus to yield, as Christians claim, a momentous insight? Not momentous platitudes, but insight.

In the Maltese context, such insight would need to be distinguished from another. I do not know whether, tonight and tomorrow, in their reportage, the various Maltese news services will describe the Last Supper exhibitions and Good Friday processions as "religious folklore". However, the term has been used by the PBS newsroom recently, and, I expect, not for the last time.

Even if the full connotations were not intended, it is telling that the term suggests quaint, if not superstitious, traditional practices, no longer quite anchored in contemporary life. I believe the reporter was groping for a term to suggest something a bit different: that these religious practices yield an insight into the Maltese as a people with long, culturally religious roots. Fair enough. Even the cultural policy document, published a few years ago by the government, considers religious ritual as a popular cultural expression, rather than a form of meditation on truth.

However, insights into the Maltese people or Maltese culture may be interesting, but not necessarily insightful about the cross. The gap between the Christian understanding of a realised human being and several Maltese cultural understandings is sufficiently wide that the Maltese language carries an expression - ragel qaddis, miskin (a saintly man, poor thing) - that suggests one may be too Christian for one's own good.

The gap need not prevent people from finding Good Friday meaningful. The moving story of a murdered innocent can intermingle powerfully with memories of a religious childhood. The horror and pity of tragedy, nostalgia for a disappeared past, personal experience of betrayal and suffering, and even love of public ritual can combine to make this weekend mean more than one can say.

But it can be all of this and be an entirely secularised experience of commemorating a good man (poor thing). Secular because its meaning would be confined to memory and consolation, yielding no insight other than into oneself. That is a lot, but falls far short of Christianity's claim that the cross reveals not just the masks of the world but also the future face of humanity.

To put things in this way is to suggest a way to measure whether Malta can be said to have a truly Christian culture (as distinct from saying that it has a culturally Christian identity, that is, that Christian symbols are the currency of its civic expressions).

It would measure the extent to which the Church is able to renew Maltese culture, to live not by harping on the national past but by making contemporary life more meaningful. The basic unit of measure would be the number of times Church leaders say something arresting about Christ and make us reel with the shock of self-recognition.

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