Arguments for Easter: Perhaps a pointed hood is what we all need

Now that Holy Week is made up of ordinary working days it would be good to have some outward sign to remind us of our inner journeying
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HOLY MONDAY. Jesus entered Jerusalem yesterday and and began the upheaval of his last hectic week. This morning he will commute into the city from the suburbs to continue the programme of intense confrontational preaching that will bring about his death on Friday.

No sign of anything different on the 8.12 Thameslink from St Albans. But then, "Remember Monday 29 March and keep it holy" didn't get into the final version of the Christian scriptures. Even the commandment that did make it, about keeping the sabbath holy, i.e. set apart, would be difficult if it weren't for the discipline of churchgoing. On the ordinary working days of Holy Week, without an outward ritual to hang on to, we struggle.

This is, potentially, a serious problem. After all, meeting for worship is an important but brief element of religious observance. The greatest part of every religion is supposed to be pursued during the course of ordinary life. The handicap for Christianity, though, is that its literature, from the New Testament, through the Desert Fathers to the medieval monastic texts, is overwhelmingly unworldly. When Jesus stayed with Mary and Martha, Martha was criticised for getting on with the housework. When Jesus's fishermen-apostles went back to their boats, Jesus called them ashore to become fishers of men, i.e. full-time evangelists. There is plenty of schooling in full-Monty religion, with the soul stripped bare to encounter the awfulness of God; just not very much guidance about how to manage when we wear our ordinary working clothes.

Four Easters ago, I decided clothes were the answer. We were in Seville for Holy Week, and every evening the streets were packed until the early hours of the morning with impossibly long processions of Nazarinos, black- clad and hooded penitents, walking in their thousands behind elaborate floats that carried larger-than-life statues of the suffering Christ and his weeping mother.

Two incidents helped to reveal the spirit behind the ritual. One was the "will-he, won't-he" discussion about the 17-year-old boy in the flat where we were staying. He was a member of one of the religious societies that organise the processions, but he was at an awkward age, and hadn't said whether he would walk that year. Debate ended when he emerged from his bedroom and asked his mother to iron his robes.

The three exhausted Nazarinos I saw later that night couldn't have been much older. As the procession flowed past, they dropped out to have a cigarette with their friends outside one of the bars. They sat on the pavement and chatted with some girls, their pointed hoods standing upright beside them. In both cases, there was an interplay between the serious and the casual, but this wasn't a distinction between the sacred and the secular, for there was a casualness about the sacred, too. Somehow the uncompromising nature of the clothing enabled its wearers to slip anonymously in (and out) of the penitential experience. It is worth noting in passing that the Nazarinos are all men. Women, it appears, have no need of fancy dress to express their spiritual desires.

Back home in Britain, I took part in a Good Friday procession in Suffolk. There were perhaps 80 people there, not a bad turn-out for a small town, but it seemed pitifully few when we straggled past bemused shoppers in the high street. Good Protestants all, we were dressed in tweeds, anoraks and brightly coloured kagouls. It felt very exposed. Without a disguise, and without a gaudy illuminated float to take the eye, the processors were attracting too much of the attention.

Perhaps what I'm hankering after is mourning clothing, for the Holy Week experience is very like mourning. As in bereavement, normal life continues, because it must; but every now and then the spirit plunges down some vertiginous hole. At times like these, you require nothing more than to be set apart, given space and understanding by those around you. At the other times, though, you want to sit in the bar and chat to your friends. Some sort of Holy Week garment might help cover the two moods.

When the northern European reformers swept away Christianity's outward trappings - the medallions, the statues, the pilgrim badges - they thought to replace them with rational, informed belief, expressed in spiritual, not material ways: "Let holy charity, mine outward vesture be, and lowliness become mine inner clothing," in the words of Bianco da Siena. But words and abstract images are just as inadequate as the trappings when it comes to conveying the supernatural events of Easter into our everyday life. Worse than that, they give us the false impression that the death and resurrection of Christ are things that we ought to be able to understand and encompass with words. Maybe it's just that I'm exasperated by all the liturgical fiddling that's going on at the moment, but I'd like occasionally to stop thinking and just do something, for a change. Or just change.

To use clothing to draw ourselves into Easter is no more nonsensical than anything else we do; and it does, at least, have its echo in nature. Christina Rossetti:

While Christ lay dead the widowed world

Wore willow green for hope undone.

Paul Handley is editor of `The Church Times'