The Cruellest Month?

A recent TV quiz show (yes, it was probably Pointless) included this question:

According to the poet, T.S. Eliot, what is “the cruellest month”?

The answer, as I’m sure you know, is April. But why is April the cruellest month? Eliot’s The Waste Land, from which this is the opening line, is a poem written in the aftermath of a global pandemic: not COVID19, but the Spanish Flu, which Eliot and his wife contracted in December 1918. The Spanish Flu may have killed up to 100 million people globally (more than those who had died in the First World War), whereas COVID19 (with the benefit of antibiotics and vaccines) has killed just over 6 million. The Waste Land, which is the setting for Eliot’s poem, is a barren, devastated land in which nothing grows. In this dark place, April is the cruellest month because, in our world, in normal times, April is all about growth and new life (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). It is Spring and the flowers which have lain dormant throughout the Winter start to show their colours. In the Waste Land, this does not happen, which is why, in the poem, April is the cruellest month. The hope that we normally associate with April and with Spring is to be dashed.

During our own global pandemic, the last two Aprils have also been cruel: in March 2020, the Coronavirus Act 2020 received Royal Assent and lockdown measures came into force in the UK. As far as I remember, we thought this would be a short-term period of deprivation. How wrong we were! In England, COVID restrictions with legal force stayed in place until February 2022. Even now, we are being reminded that the pandemic is not over, and that we need to continue to exercise caution and modify our behaviour.

So, how does April 2022 look? On the first of April, Ofgem raised the cap that limits the charges that energy suppliers are allowed to make, meaning that energy prices to consumers shot up alarmingly. Money saving expert Martin Lewis, and others, advised everyone to submit their meter readings to the energy companies on the 31 March, to ensure that the higher prices applied only to fuel used from 1 April. Inevitably, the energy companies’ websites went into meltdown, making this very difficult to do. Sadly, none of this turned out to be an April Fool’s joke and many will struggle to pay their bills. The future doesn’t hold much encouragement either, with the prospect of further eye-watering increases in October.

From a personal perspective, the disruption to travel is causing anxiety, with airlines cancelling flights because of staff shortages due to Covid, and scenes of chaos at airports as people become increasingly frustrated by queues and long delays at security and check-in.

April has also seen the continuing horrors of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with stories of atrocities being committed by Russian soldiers. We have been faced with shocking images of civilian deaths, and there are calls for President Putin to face trial for war crimes. The cruelty of war is difficult to imagine for those of us fortunate enough never to have faced it.

Is there any antidote to the cruelty we see around us? Is there hope to be found, anywhere? At the time of writing, in the church calendar it is Lent. I’ve never really been a fan of ‘giving something up for Lent’. Especially when our motives may be mixed, at best. As someone has said, fasting without prayer is just a diet. Our Lenten disciplines can be just as self-centred as our festivities.

The English word ‘Lent’ comes from an Old English word ‘lencten‘ which simply means ‘Spring’, as that is when Lent happens in the Northern Hemisphere. (I gather that, in Dutch, the word for Spring is ‘lente‘.) ‘Lencten‘ may be related to the word ‘lengthen’, which is what the days do at this time of year. Lent happens in Spring, when we see the earth coming back to life. And it prepares us for Easter when Christians consider the story of Jesus who faces the wasteland of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. We know that the darkness will be broken open by the light of resurrection on Easter Day, but I wonder how it all seemed to Jesus’s disciples who did not have that perspective. Cruel, no doubt.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews in our New Testament encourages us to “look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”:

who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12.2)

I’m afraid I have no words of wisdom when it comes to energy bills. Nor to the many other horrors and cruelties of the world in which we live. But Lent reminds us that the death of Winter gives way to the warmth and light of Spring, and that the wasteland of Good Friday will be replaced by the joy of Easter Day. As an old preacher once said:

“It’s Friday. But Sunday’s coming!”

Alan Jewell

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