26 March 2005

Good Friday

Went yesterday to the "Solemn Commemoration of the Lord's Passion" at Westminster Cathedral. A sell-out crowd, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor on the mike. As I was not as early as I'd hoped to be, I had to stand at the back, for two hours. But it was well worth it.

I hadn't been to a Good Friday service for such a long time, and I was expecting something completely different - The Stations of the Cross, where the priests go from one station to another doing readings, a station being a representation (painting or relief) of an episode from the passion story. Eg "Jesus Is Condemned To Death", "Veronica Wipes The Face Of Jesus" etc.
Yesterday was a revelation, and when I got home I dug out my old copy of Wilde's De Profundis,
and this quote I half-remembered:

...the ultimate survival of the Greek chorus, lost elsewhere to art, is to be found in the servitor answering the priest at Mass.

Except, this being an extraordinary Mass, the scenario is more complex. For the crucial and dramatic reading from John's gospel, three priests downstage took the speaking parts of Jesus, the Procurator Pilate, the High Priest and so on. But they delivered them in plainsong, rendering them formally and augustly beautiful. The choir of men and boys, way way above, gave voice to the crowd calling for J's crucifixion (in settings by Byrd*). In this way were set out the formal elements of a fifth-century tragedy, with protagonists played by three actors, the chorus not merely commenting from on high but taking part in the action.

(*other composers heard during the service were Bruckner, Poulenc and Pablo Casals.)

I'd finished the Exorcist screenplay the day before and so the sight of all the statuary hooded in purple gave me goosebumps. When the cardinal came to within feet of me, took off his mitre and accepted the crucifix with an air of determination and sorrow, I was very, very moved. The mood in this vast cathedral was as at a funeral for a friend. Except of course for the smartarse behind me, who whispered and giggled to his female companion. His words were inaudible, but his leery tweedy wrinkled face and mocking, darting eyes (think John Carey's raffish younger brother) spoke volumes: triumphant delight at his touristic infiltration of this ridiculous charade. Look at the credulous Catholics, how serious they all are! I told him off, told him to have more respect. He tried to patronise me into retreat and it nearly worked, but I saw his companion (trendy glasses, dark red lippie) was horrified, aware they were in the wrong. So I persisted, told him he was behaving like a child, and he was stumped. The whispering stopped. I know it seems terribly prissy of me, but you'd've had to've been there, among the concentrated devotion of so many people of all ages, races, nations and classes, all cheek by jowl, to see just how out of order he was. I somehow doubt he'd dare do the same in the Regent's Park mosque.

Thinking over the episode later, I was reminded of Seinfeld's, "When did I become a shusher? I used to be a shushee."

Antidotal to all that, The Two Ronnies Sketchbook last night was a treat. More please, Auntie Beeb! And Doctor Who's just started... (taping it). They should increase the licence fee.



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