After Easter Mass in the Duomo in Florence, my wife and I wandered the nearby streets. We saw a mime entertaining a crowd by the Baptistery. He selected a boy and a girl about seven years old from the crowd, and brought them into the circle. He costumed them clownishly, using a long balloon to make a penis between the boy’s legs, and put hands on them to show them how to stand. The boy started to cry, and he ushered the child back to mama, with a feigned kick.
In our country I thought this might have turned into a frightening experience for the child. American parents might have overreacted and accused the performer of abuse. Here the boy has his nonno, who picks him up and gives him a hug much more powerful than whatever discomfited him. Nobody will teach him that his mental health has been threatened. The crowd will go away happy, and so will he.
Every church member has more and less satisfactory
experiences in worship. I complained to my friend Ken about disappointing
services in my home parish, so he challenged me to describe what I would
consider ideal. My Episcopal parish celebrates the Mass every Sunday, so the
question evokes a liturgical imagination different from what we find where the
sermon is the main event.
The form of the Eucharist is set in Christ’s Institution of
the Sacrament (Matt. 26:26–28 and parallels). Its physical movement, breaking
the bread, pouring and drinking the wine, would be recognizable anywhere in the
world; a communicant would not need to know the language to follow and
participate. Far from being rigid and constricting, the structure of the
service frees worshipers from a preacher’s words or emotions. Absolutely any
feeling, possibly different for each person present, could arise to be blessed.
This is the day of days. There are dove shaped breads in all
the stores; chocolate eggs bigger than the children who will receive them. The
celebration started with a massive peal from the campanile on the stroke of
midnight. Probably the first Mass began then, for there was another such peal
shortly afterward, where the Gloria or the prayer of consecration would have
come. We left our hotel after a quick coffee, to get to the Duomo in time for
the 9:00 a.m Mass. It was raining. Arriving more than an hour early, we got a
pew about the tenth row, but we were surrounded by standees, and soon became
virtual standees ourselves.
The west doors opened with the sound of drums and trumpets.
Men in Renaissance
dress entered carrying halberds and swords, weapons that could have wreaked
real havoc. The procession ended with the archbishop, blessing the crowd
as he went. Through the doors we could see the famous carretino, two storeys high, gilded and painted, pulled into the
piazza by white oxen. This must have been done within the hour, since there had
been no sign of it when we arrived. It is loaded with fireworks. Men rigged a
wire to it from a pillar about two storeys high in the crossing.
At the Gloria a papier-maché
dove with a rocket in its belly traveled with frightful noise down the wire to
the carretino, set it alight, and
returned. By this time it was exploding with cascades, roman candles, and
flash-bombs. This lasts all through the Gloria. There are multiple hymns by the
choir. Their mouths move, but nobody can hear them. The congregation is not
here for Monteverdi or Bach, and the choir is not here to entertain tourists.
The choir addresses God no less, on behalf of worshipers who stand on the pews
with full-throated shouting and weeping. The bells of the campanile peal
throughout the consecration prayer.