‘On my bed I remember you; On you I muse through the night,” wrote the Psalmist.
It’s a holy example – not one I follow very often. But the other day I did piously read my Bible at bedtime and as I finished the Sermon on the Mount I was sidetracked by the thought: “If he wasn’t the Son of God, then who was Jesus of Nazareth?”
CS Lewis thought he was either the former – God made flesh, a divine being who lived and breathed 2,000 years ago – or ultimately you had to consider his teachings worthless, on a level with the ravings of a man “who says he is a poached egg”.
In other words, Jesus didn’t leave us room for a “humanist” interpretation of the Gospels. So it doesn’t mean much to say, as some socialists do, “I am an atheist and I don’t think he rose from the dead, but Jesus the anti-Roman revolutionary? Yes, that I can get behind.” Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, seems to think that Jesus was the first ever Marxist, based purely on his slanted interpretation of the Golden Rule.
I’ve heard perfectly sensible people disagree with Lewis’s opinion – they say Jesus could have been a great moral teacher without being God incarnate – but more and more I think he was on the money.
In the foreword of Benedict XVI’s extraordinary book on the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth, he quotes a key sentence that becomes “the point around which I will construct my own book”. It is a line from the German scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg: “Without anchoring in God, the person of Jesus becomes shadowy, unreal and unexplainable.”
Read the Gospel, listen to it at Mass, and then try to disagree with that. I can’t. Either Jesus was the Son of God or Jesus’s life, the Gospels and everything that followed is the most weirdly baffling game of make-believe in the history of the human race.
Ah, Midnight Mass in London. What a privilege. Go to the Oratory, for example, to hear an angelic choir with orchestra, a thought-provoking homily and experience dazzlingly beautiful, life-affirming liturgy. Stupidly, I didn’t. To avoid a very late night, I went to a local church on Christmas morning in the London area close to my in-laws.
This may seem mean-spirited, but I’m afraid it was one of the worst Masses I have attended in my life. There were screaming children, whose parents allowed them to clatter their newly unwrapped toys up and down the pews throughout the service. (I carefully avoided the “family Mass” – this one was apparently “solemn”.)
The less said about the music, the better, but the choir was terrible, the organ dirge-like and the congregation didn’t bother joining in. The priest gave a decent homily; otherwise he seemed oblivious to the poor standard of the service.
I left thinking: “Wow. Next Christmas in London, the Oratory.” But I wonder how many others, who perhaps only go to Mass once or twice a year, left thinking: “Next Christmas in London, let’s just not bother.”
I’m in need of some guidance. I’ve been asked by my best friends to be godfather to their newborn son, Teddy. But what exactly are a modern godfather’s duties? Hmm, I thought. Maybe The Godfather will have some tips. I could study Vito Corleone and learn from cinema’s greatest mafia don.
Here is a giant among men. Vito commands respect – literally, in that first scene, when Bonasera the undertaker forgets to bow and scrape properly. “You don’t even think,” he wheezes, “to call me Godfather.”
Admittedly, as the film critic Roger Ebert observed, what you don’t see in The Godfather is the impact of the Corleone family’s crime – “No women trapped into prostitution. No lives wrecked by gambling. No victims of theft, fraud or protection rackets.”But within the film’s enclosed, all-male world, Don Corleone sets a fine example and is never seen to do wrong.
“Do you spend time with your family?” he asks his youngest son Michael in a scene near the end of his life. “Good. Because a man that doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
There you go. That’s what I’ll tell Teddy one day.
Will Heaven is comment editor of The Sunday Telegraph