Good Friday & Easter at the Casa

This is my third and final post on the Triduum at the Casa in Scottsdale, Arizona. Click on my name above to read my previous entries. When I heard that the Casa was putting on a passion play in the afternoon of Good Friday, I mentally thought I might skip it. I had studied the sordid history of Christians and their passion plays and knew how would up Christians could get after such dramatizations. Routinely, they took out their hatred on the killers of Christ, that is, the nearest Jews, setting off pogrom after pogrom for thousands of years. I had never seen a passion play, nor was I anxious to. But lunchtime talk of the play among the retreatants was so positive that I became curious, even hopeful. I was not disappointed. This play consisted of individual monologues, given in first-person by an array of characters, most of them biblical: Pilate, Herod, the centurion, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Veronica, and so on. Each character explained his or her own experience of the passion, each had a particular point of view. Sometimes the lines included a rationale for one’s less than honorable action, making even the villains seem human. On the other hand, the heroes were modest: Veronica was just doing what came naturally. And the passerby conscripted to carry Jesus’ cross for him after he kept falling? He was less than enthusiastic at first--why me?--but he changed, was even transformed, by the thankful look and overall demeanor of the condemned man--this Jesus. Though the setting was historical, the words and actions bridged the time gap and brought us onlookers into the scene. At the end of most of the monologues, a question was directed to the audience: Was that how you saw it? or, Were you there? The monologues were accompanied by music and a team of movement people, who gestured silently throughout the play in stark, coordinated poses--like a tableau. Even though they were silent, they functioned like a Greek chorus, gluing the action together, guiding us along. I have seen many very fine liturgical dancers (and the Casa had these as well during the Triduum), but this role of moving, gesturing, and holding the gesture was something new to me, and I found it chillingly effective for Good Friday. On cue, for example, two or three women would hold and move a large rust-colored cross, 6 or 7 foot tall. One of the most moving moments for me was when they laid it across Mary’s lap as she clutched it, a pieta even without Jesus’ body. The cross, alone, worked powerfully. Then Mary began to sing. The actress had a somewhat low, husky voice, with that tear so vital to country and western music. It was almost a wail and there was hardly a dry eye in the congregation when the song was finished. No scapegoats were mentioned; rather a whole cast of characters played a role in the crucifixion--for good and for ill. That evening, when the time came in the service for the veneration of the cross, a thousand people gathered outside would rush toward the cross, then quietly wait their turn to touch it, pray before it, linger with it, some remaining for a long time--one man on crutches unable to bend down, held out his arms toward it like a blessing. Our retreat leader had told us that the faith of other people--the congregation--would help us to experience the Triduum more deeply. He could not have been more correct. The Easter Vigil The final liturgy in Palm Court had been explained to us retreatants as informal: the kind of all-night story telling one might expect by a huge extended family gathered around a bonfire. The priest had also told us that darkness was a requirement--it must be night--and that the moon itself would play a role. Not only was the full moon responsible for the dating of Easter each year (the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox), but the full moon would rise, putting in a cameo appearance during the vigil. I couldn’t wait. After dark we met in a side field, guided by ushers with flashlights, as we made our way to the bonfire, bigger of course than one finds in any church. Here we lit the Paschal candle and proclaimed "Christ, our light" before we processed back into Palm Court for the year’s climactic liturgy. None of the "readings" were read, exactly. Instead some were sung, others were chanted, the Abraham/Isaac story was proclaimed by a real father and son. Others were narrated and danced (the creation even involved sparkles, as I recall), and the whole liturgy of the Word nearly flew by like a mini-marathon telling of a child’s favorite bedtime stories in a single night. It was time for the initiation rites. First to be baptized were two people with disabilities. It took some time for one man to get situated in the immersion font, but we were patient and expectant and in solidarity with him, he was so palpably excited to enter this community. Person after person was baptized, their names called out, the water splashed, the perfumed oil applied, the white garment wrapped. One young woman, a Renoir redhead come to life, had been pregnant throughout the rite of initiation, we learned. It seemed only fitting that her baby now be baptized as well. Out came the weighty infant, initiating the new infant font--a mutual initiation. I don’t even know how to describe this service, except to say that during the litany of saints, I found myself looking around to see if I recognized any of them in the congregation--so near did the church through the centuries seem to me, though we were only a thousand gathered under the stars. I knew that the big crowds would come three times tomorrow, more convenient scheduling for children and seniors, and many working people. And for them the liturgy would also be resoundingly full of joy and new birth. The next day, I reflected on the festivities, marveling at all the preparation, decoration and expense, the time and energy, the music rehearsals and cast of thousands--for what? Sometimes people go this far for a wedding, but the expectation is that it will be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Yet the church fasts and feasts extravagantly every year. What of the disciples’ displeasure when that mysterious woman poured expensive ointment over Jesus’ body. Asked one, Couldn’t this have been spent for the poor? The implication was: it is so much waste! The same could be said of the Triduum. Yet this annual celebration is the transformation of the poor, a promise of resurrection for the poor--as all of us poor are enriched by the God’s love for creation. Our retreat leader said that Franciscan theology teaches that even if there had been no Fall, Jesus would have come to earth anyway. The incarnation would have taken place because God is love and it is in the nature of love to draw close to the beloved. Have you ever heard anything better than that Karen Sue Smith (Watercolor by the author.)
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