St. Botolph’s Parish, Veneration of the Cross, 19 March 2017
What can a man give in return for his life? (Mark 8.37).
In the sticky, steamy streets below the window, the uproar of clashing cymbals, shrill solo saxophone, tearing trumpet and wailing trombone scrape like fingernails on a chalkboard over the monotone hum of the flutes. High-pitched flutes by the hundreds, crudely carved from ebony. Black as the starless heaven. One hour until midnight. From the wrought-iron balcony, you watch the flickering torches light up masks. A huge nose, a protruding belly. Limpid eyes of a coffee-coloured, bare-breasted girl, decked out in feathers of blue, violet, and … red. Bobbing atop a float full of lilies and magnolias, a cardinal in a tricornered hat humps her from behind. ‘Smile, Daddy’, you interject sardonically, ‘it’s carnival’. From his wheelchair, blank eyes gaze into a space beyond smiles. It is the night of topsy-turvy, this weird, wild night of masks. A peacock mask of bright plume and phallic beak. A clown’s mask of reddish tufts, bulging nose, and idiot-blank brow. Yours? A half-skull in lurid yellows, reds and whites. Around the eyes, the pinkish red blush of a fever. You felt his pulse. Dead as a door nail. Why not honour his last wish? Wear the mask. Imprint upon it your own smile. Grin as you did when you tipped him from his wheelchair, left him bed sores bleeding into soiled sheets. ‘Never mind, Daddy’, you smiled, wiping off the saliva from his purple nails. Now you stand ready to inherit. On one condition, stipulated in his will.
You must wear the carnival mask and not remove it until the stroke of midnight.
One hour until midnight. Step by step traipsing the spiral staircase, you descend from the balcony down into the street. Your foot slips on something mushy. ‘Yeuch!’ you spit. ‘This filthy, stinking cesspool of a city’. Carnival brings it out. An alligator on a leash, snapping at stray mutts. A fat slob in Harlequin motley, pissing on the front steps of Holy Rosary. Is it any wonder they call it Mardi Gras, Fatty Tuesday? Greasy and fat. Well, why not stroll inside, get away from the stink? ‘You don’t really have to believe’, you persuade yourself. Crossing into Daddy’s old parish, you smile. No candle stand. No baptism font. No statue of Mary – oh, I mean, ‘Our Lady’ – by the old, unused high altar. No Stations of the Cross. No Cross. They covered up the last one in ‘69. Took it down, sold it for kindling, you see. How Daddy loved his ritual! Beads in hand, clouds of incense rising on the stern, sombre Gregorian chant. Old Fr. Laferriere in his smoke-stained red chasuble, back turned away. Streamers flying, guitars ablaze, Tessa Quigley now bounces merrily down the aisles. Fr. Gowan, in a Eucharistic suit of clown’s blue, violet, and red passes out Ritz crackers and cups of Welch’s grape. ‘An anodyne, inclusive church’, you beam. ‘A smiling church, not some exclusive “cult” like the Methodists used to call us. Is there a Cross anywhere left in sight?’ At most, a clock over the western door. Only a few minutes left. The mask feels airtight, sticky, clingy, like Daddy’s dying hand. Go to the washroom, wash it off. A minute now. ‘I’m rich’, you hear the clock strike. Tearing off the mask, you look in the mirror.
Indelibly imprinted on your skull, the sardonic smile, the feverish features of … a mask.
It need not be New Orleans, the city of masks. Under the uproar of scraping train wheels, the monotone and high-pitched hum of gossip, every countenance on the tube is a mask. Pink face glued to a smartphone. Ruddy wrinkles too stiff to weep, staring at blank tunnel walls. An alligator in Versace, a corporate suck-up’s grin etched in every ingratiating edge of his lips. Captive smiles on pitiless faces. Afraid of bowing down at the footstool of your own pain, how will you do anything but flee a dying man in a wheelchair – or on a Cross? Give them a Carnival opiate, say church-going agnostics. Motley colours of green, white, and red. Guaranteed never to ruffle a peacock’s plumes. Give them a mask.
Wool ropes in hand, incense rising in sober, severe Byzantine chant, we wear no clown’s motley today. Only the martyr’s red. We offer no Carnival gospel. Only the Cross.
If anyone would come after me, says our crucified God, let him deny himself the shrill solo of a self-willed mask. The reddish tufts, the bulging drunkard’s nose, the idiot-blank brow. Let him wash off the lily-fresh scent for the stench of sour vinegar and gall. Let him never seek me on smooth pillows, in smooth words that stroke a conscience or blind the soul to to the face behind the mask. Let him never seek me in pink-cheeked praise or the happy, heathenish antics of aggiornamento, Ritz cracker Communion and Welch’s gentle grape. I am not there. I am in the sticky, steamy streets, the Son of Man declares. I am inside an adolescent body, shuddering as the adversary humps her from behind. I am in the tear of a child lost in the crowd, seeking my holy Mother’s image where she used to be. I am the dying man in the wheelchair. I am the priest, the monk or nun, the nameless, the unloved for whom no one prays. I am the Face of every life lost for my sake and the Gospel’s.
The Face of every life saved. For what can a man give in return for his own face?
Beloved in Christ: nothing is more hideous than an unending smile. A grotesque, grinning mockery, its eye unable to weep. Its heart unable to break – and thus little by little, unable to love. Save your life, says the nose weary of sickroom smells and sticky, steamy streets. Come down from that wrought-iron balcony. Then run, run quickly. Vanishing out of sight. Lose yourself in the crowd. Hide behind the banners of yellowish-orange, blue and white, violet … and red. Among walls and words bereft of the Cross. Wear your mask of choice. You may find that it grows on you.
Today is no Passion Play, homegrown and harmless. It is your Passion … and ours.
We are not standing at the foot of Golgotha, watching a dying Body that no human hands will shelter from the bracing winds and biting cold. Ours is the body buffeted in the winds, ours the soul nailed upon the wood. Ours the burden of mercy, from which a churchgoing coward and amiable atheist flees. Ours is the choice. If the light of his countenance – that is, Mercy’s face – is imprinted on you, you will fall down and worship wherever you see his Cross. If not, lose yourself in the carnival. Never touch the nerve of humanity’s pain.
Avoid it, shun it, run from it. All the hours and minutes of your life. Until midnight strikes.