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An Orcadian Easter

An Orcadian Easter

Monday July 16 2018

Throughout the summer, we are revisiting some of our favourite Ron Ferguson columns. In the latest, published in April 2008, Ron finds parallels between the events of Easter and a bloody landmark in Orkney's history.

The gang are gathered together.

The talk is of this and that, and there is optimism in the air. Something good is going to happen; they feel it in their bones. They are about to come into their own, at long last.

As the food and drink are passed around, they talk excitedly about who will be top dog in the new order which is about to be inaugurated.

The man sits in the middle of them, looking a little preoccupied. Right there, among his friends who have walked a long, hard road with him, he is quite alone.

They all love the man, but sometimes they find him uncomfortable.

Then he takes a loaf, and pauses quietly. The conversation dies away. He breaks the bread in two, with a wrenching, violent motion.

“This is my body, broken for you,” he says.

He takes a cup of wine and holds it up.

“This is my blood,” he says, “Shed for you.”

He looks around at them.

“One of you,” he says quietly, “Will betray me.”

Holy Week, 1116. Earl Magnus and his cousin, Earl Hakon, joint rulers of Orkney, meet to resolve some difficulties between them.

Hakon is envious of the popularity of the more gentle Magnus. They agree to hold a peace conference on the island of Egilsay. Each one is to bring two ships to the meeting, and an equal number of men.

Egilsay. Magnus looks out to sea, and sees eight ships on the horizon. He understands the arithmetic of death. He leaves his friends, and goes into the church to pray.

The man goes out to the garden, where he prays that the chalice of death will pass him by. One of his friends embraces him, but it is not a gesture of affectionate support. The one who has confronted the dirty money and the dirty politics of the holy city must die.

Before the authorities, the man is silent.

Strangely, his high-born accusers are uncomfortable in his presence, as if it were they who were being judged.

The crowds who have cheered the man shout for his death.

Magnus offers to go into permanent exile, or to be mutilated or blinded. The offers are refused. Hakon orders Lifolf, his cook, to carry out the execution.

Lifolf weeps bitterly. Magnus consoles him, and says he can have his clothes. The earl takes off his tunic, then kneels to commit his soul to God as a sacrifice for the peace of Orkney.

He prays for his enemies and killers, forgiving them for their crimes against him.

Magnus asks Lifolf to stand in front of him and strike him a hard blow on the head, since it was unfitting for a chieftain to be beheaded like a thief. Orkney is silent as Magnus crosses himself and stoops to receive the blow.

The man is taken out to Golgotha, the place of the skull. There they offer him wine mingled with myrrh, but he refuses it. The arms of the carpenter are stretched on the carpenter’s cross, and the nails are hammered into his hands and feet. The man gives his tunic to his executioners, and they cast lots for it.

The man looks at his executioners, and says: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

He feels isolated, abandoned by God, yet to that absent, silent God he abandons his spirit. An eerie darkness covers the land. Wood, nails, torn flesh, blood-red love, salvation.

For now, it is over. Orkney will live in peace for many years, under a remorseful and generous Hakon. The grave of Magnus will become a place of pilgrimage, of healing. In his honour, a great cathedral with red pillars will be built in Kirkwall. Amidst its stones will be found a crumbling box containing bones and a skull.

The skull will have a split down the centre.

For now, it is over. The man is left hanging at Golgotha, the place of the skull, as the crowds depart. But soon there will be rumours of a dead man walking, of a revolutionary power, of a dance of spirit. His friends will meet again in a room, sharing bread and wine, lifting up their voices and in the great Jewish psalms of thanksgiving.

And the singing, the singing will never be done.

Last week: Cherish the Light