The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
T.S. Eliot, East Coker

It is Good Friday in the Western Christian calendar today, and a good Friday it has been for our little family. We were meant to be jetting off to Tenerife this week, but obviously current events have taken that off the table; nonetheless we kept our annual leave booked, and have been enjoying unseasonably warm weather in the garden. Without the constant squeeze of deadlines and childcare jumbled together from 6.30am to night every day, it’s been easy to pretend the lockdown is just a staycation, a chance to enjoy the weather and each other. We’ve eaten homemade lollies in the sun; my husband and daughter built a birdhouse; I taught my daughter how to play hopscotch. Lovely long days, and even when the heat goes out into the night the evenings are lustrous, sky tinged deep blue, birds still singing.

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land.
Matthew 27: 45

There has been no darkness over our back garden on this, the most sombre of days in the Christian year, a day whose grief can only be borne with the faith of better days to come. I think we have all carried Good Fridays within us these past weeks, and sometimes – perhaps often – with limited faith in those better days. It is hard not to feel a frustrated sort of despair when one knows this is not just natural calamity but a catalogue of avoidable errors compounded by a decade-and-change of austerity.

The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”
Luke 7: 3-5

In the US, a range of right wing evangelical leaders have refused to take Coronavirus seriously, telling their flock to have faith in Christ’s ability to protect them. Even for the Christian who takes public healthcare seriously, I imagine it’s tempting to draw on the vision of Christ as healer. But as I thought about this, even as a dissenting and more-or-less lapsed Catholic, I also thought of the way the media is currently valorising NHS workers as heroes or even saints, and how this is both a terrible burden for them and an easy way for the government to wriggle out of accountability for their lives. Translated into martyrs, the humanity of doctors and nurses (and plenty of other hospital staff, who clean and make meals and keep records and maintain machines and a thousand other things) begins to fade into a background of well-meaning rainbows and applause. I have a rainbow coloured by my daughter stuck in our front window, and the Thursday night “clap for our carers” lifts my spirits. But I don’t want martyrs. I want people who are flesh and blood, living and breathing – breathing by themselves, without pain – as they work hard to save us.


It is in this moment is too convenient to think of the Crucifixion as a “taking the bullet” for us, to see Christ as a martyred doctor or nurse, patiently breaking his body on our behalf. Better to see Christ as a patient, crucified slowly by a suffocating death. Christ canonically suffers with those who suffer most, which in our world Covid-19 is making crystal clear are people of colour, the poor, the disabled, those whose lives are not valued. And frankly I think the man who turned over the tables in the temple in fury at those who put profit above community would be mad as hell (sorry) about it.

On this Good Friday, mild as May and with a death toll from Coronavirus touching 1000 here in the UK, I turned again to T.S. Eliot. Sometimes it’s annoying that the poet who speaks most deeply to what fragmented faith I have is a stuffy Anglican who seems to have treated at least one woman very badly. But in the ruins and wildernesses of his landscapes I always find something that resonates with the present, and today East Coker struck me anew, as I thought of the failures of capitalism and the grief of those sacrificed under the aegis of a pitiless government.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker 

In spite of that – is that a blind sort of optimism? Hope is increasingly complicated in this difficult age; “As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living” writes Eliot at the close of East Coker. But he reminds us that the only way out of the dark is through it, with purpose.