I enjoy wandering through churches, Roman Catholic churches to be specific, but only the old ones, not the modern houses of worship that look like ski lodges or lecture halls. The Byzantine and Gothic architectural masterpieces with soaring domes, dark marble, brooding jewel-toned stained glass and shadowy alcoves dimly lit with flickering red votive candles seem like the perfect places to be haunted by martyred saints, sacrificed saviors and Satan-battling angels. I felt disappointment wash over me the moment I walked into the grand old church and saw a sleek cross fashioned from two tubes of brushed nickle set in a simple square teak base behind the alter instead of a huge crucifix with an anguished Christ twisting in lifelike torment. Many old churches have retrofitted their lavishly gloomy interiors with au courant trappings, and as I looked around from the vestibule to the alter I noticed the sleek brushed nickle and teak motif everywhere…even the Stations of the Cross lining the walls were rendered in the cold, crisp materials. I joined a small group of elderly parishioners who were waiting for their priest to arrive and begin the services that are a Friday night tradition during Lent. Father DeSando, a man in his late thirties or early forties who looked surprisingly similar to Absolut vodka representative and occasional RuPaul’s Drag Race judge, Jeffrey Moran, swept down the aisle and greeted us with a silent, boyish smile. “Good evening,” he whispered then eyed me suspiciously, but not I might say, disapprovingly. “Does everyone have a booklet?” he asked holding up a handful of small staple-bound paper pamphlets with a crown of thorns surrounding the words “The Stations of the Cross” on the cover, and the assembled seniors nodded in unison. Ignoring my raised hand Father DeSando fished a small metal clicker out of his pocket. “Click.” The group turned, faced the First Station, knelt, blessed themselves and rose, some more easily than others, with the second “click.” “The First Station of the Cross: Jesus Is Condemned to Death,” the priest solemnly intoned and began to read from his booklet, “My Jesus, the world still has you on trial. It keeps asking who you are and why you make the demands you make…” An old woman in a Jersey Boys sweatshirt, perm-a-crease dress slacks and white sneakers leaned in towards me and whispered, “What an evil man…Pilate, such a coward…” “Oh no, I wouldn’t call him evil. He just wasn’t very bright,” I said quietly, “I only met the man once, but that was my impression of him. He talked non-stop, all sorts of convoluted nonsense. I finally asked him, ‘What is truth, anyway?’ but he just stared at me. Obviously, though, the question stuck in his mind.” The old woman stared at me as blankly as Pilate had. “He was incredibly handsome,” I said, “I think that’s how he got his post in Judea.” The gray-haired lady frowned in confusion and turned to the teak plaque on the wall labeled “FIRST” in a san-serif font. “That really doesn’t do him justice,” I said and pointed as discreetly as possible to the infamous Procurator represented as a brushed nickle stick figure.
“We adore you oh Christ and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world,” Father DeSando prayed as we approached the Third Station. Bowing his head he announced, “Jesus Falls the First Time,” but before the priest could continue I whispered and nodded towards the Third Station’s plaque, “I’ve seen some people take really nasty falls, worse than that.” The woman in the Jersey Boys sweatshirt grabbed my sleeve and said with great excitement, “OH! I took a bad fall in my kitchen the other day! I couldn’t get up. Luckily, my daughter was on her way over to take me to WalMart. I could have been laying there for…” “I slipped on a grape at Cosco,” a lady wearing a top decorated with small plastic jewels courtesy the Bedazzler she received as a Christmas gift, interrupted. “I thought I broke my hip!” she continued, “Thank God I didn’t, but I had a bruise from my behind to my knee. My son-in-law took pictures of it.” The Fourth Station of the Cross: Jesus Meets his Mother. “Here comes trouble,” I murmured. “That’s right, ” a woman named Lydia said sourly. “Mine just turned 97. I know it’s a blessing to still have her, but it’s always something – this hurts or that hurts, I need this, I need that – I don’t have minute for myself,” she grumbled. Father DeSando rubbed his temple, and made his way as quickly as possible through the Fifth and Sixth Stations, but as Veronica Wiped the Face of Jesus a woman holding a large Sea World tote bag passed a small plastic bottle of anti-bacterial hand cleanser around the group, and cautioned, “Those grade school kids were just in here. Who knows if they wash their hands after they go to the bathroom…” I smiled, patted her arm and said, “Thank you.”
“Even with help, Jesus stumbles and falls to the ground,” Father DeSando reached The Seventh Station of the Cross: Jesus Falls the Second Time. A portly old gentleman near the back of the group said, “We were on one of those Disney cruises last summer. That damn boat moved so much I couldn’t walk straight. I went down hard right on the deck.” Everyone shook their heads in sympathy. “I told my wife, ‘No more. Next year we go back to Epcot like always’…” he said as Father DeSando cut him short with the clicker, and we quickly continued on our way through the Savior’s Passion. I was about to alert the priest that he had omitted the Ninth Station, Jesus Falls the Third Time, but I understood why he might have deliberately passed that one by, so I kept my peace. “We adore you oh Christ and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world,” Father said in a faltering voice, cleared his throat and forged ahead to The Tenth Station: Jesus is Stripped of his Garments. Haltingly he read from the little pamphlet held in his trembling hand, “Part of the indignity is to be crucified naked…” I turned, faced the group and spoke not a word but simply raised a provocative eyebrow. “Uhggg!” a woman named Pat groaned, “I’m sick of this naked business everywhere now-a-days! We rented a movie with that Justin Timberlake the other night and there he was in the altogether. We turned it off…” “I started my computer this morning,” an old man in a Members Only jacket announced, “…and I saw a commercial for Amborcommie & Fish with these fellas wrestling and kissing in the shower.” A collective gasp rose, and the man added, “I hollered to my wife, ‘Did someone put porn on this damn machine?!’” His wife nodded her head in agreement and said, “It was terrible, just disgraceful.” “Some of the costumes on Dancing With the Stars…” Pat began to say, but another woman cut her off and told the group that she no longer watches Hollywood award shows because, “All you see are these gals falling out of their dresses like strippers.”
I could feel Father DeSando’s burning eyes trained on me. No doubt his priestly powers enabled him to identify me as the ancient evil presence, the devil, the timeless enemy, the wicked trickster who had arrived uninvited and violated the holiness of his church, although a simple process of elimination probably factored in quite heavily as well. He glared at me with open contempt, clicked angrily several times to silence his parishioners then marched away, spun quickly in a swirl of black cassock, faced the alter, genuflected and disappeared into the sacristy. “Father, Father why have you forsaken me?” …and we were forsaken, abandoned by Father DeSando. Rudderless, leaderless, I feared chaos could descend on the little group and that a geriatric Lord of the Flies-like nightmare played out amongst the pews might erupt at any moment, so I seized control of the situation, waved my hand in a professional manner of presentation and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Eleventh Station: Jesus is Nailed to the Cross.”
“Crucifixion as a form of execution was invented by the Persians, but used in a far more simple, you might even say ‘demure,’ format than the Romans would later employ. I gave the Persians my advice freely, I told them to dress it up, make it an event, but they weren’t very open-minded to suggestions,” I said to the parishioners. “The Romans, on the other hand, they listened to me and turned crucifixion into a mighty big show,” I continued, having abandoned completely the little Stations of the Cross booklet. The group gathered around with a renewed interest. “The bastards crowned Our Lord with thorns to mock him,” a bald man in a Banlon shirt said encroaching on my oration. “Actually,” I curtly corrected him, “Crowning with thorns was a common practice in crucifixions. Crucified prisoners died of asphyxiation. The only way to breath and stay alive on the cross was to pull yourself up, so I told the Romans, ‘Don’t make it easy, this isn’t a party,’ and they began to wind thorns around the victims’ heads making it unspeakably painful to push against the rough wood…brutal, but an inspired touch, if I might pat myself on the back,” I concluded my Eleventh Station lecture. Several people exclaimed, “Oh my!” or “Really?!” Others whispered excitedly, and the lady in the Jersey Boys sweatshirt took a mint out her purse and said, “I’ll be damned!”
Got a problem? Maybe I’ll help: Ask Alexios at email@example.com
©2012 M. Smith