If only I could believe in something

Some of the girls fainted, or burst into tears, especially when the nuns began to sing Misere Mei
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The Independent Online

Nobody believes in anything any more. Even the hot cross buns I bought at the supermarket yesterday had been reduced for clearance. I'm surprised that the recent Reader's Digest religious survey - which revealed that 52 per cent of us don't know why we celebrate Easter and 42 per cent have never heard of Judas Iscariot - made no mention of the dwindling popularity of hot cross buns.

Nobody believes in anything any more. Even the hot cross buns I bought at the supermarket yesterday had been reduced for clearance. I'm surprised that the recent Reader's Digest religious survey - which revealed that 52 per cent of us don't know why we celebrate Easter and 42 per cent have never heard of Judas Iscariot - made no mention of the dwindling popularity of hot cross buns.

We used to be a fairly typical 100 per cent hot cross bun-eating, Easter Sunday church-going family. Now, out of six kids, two parents and Granny, only I, Granny and one child still want the buns and, short of a miracle, I doubt any of us will make it to church tomorrow morning.

Last time we went to Easter Sunday service there was a bit of a glitch. It wasn't really the vicar's fault, more of a technical hitch like, say, a stage hand at the London Palladium mixing up the props so that when Debbie gets into the box and Paul Daniels saws her in half she really does end up in two pieces.

That particular vicar, who has long since retired, was a bit of a showman himself, given to illustrating his sermon with props. His theme that Sunday was light - souls moving from darkness to light, the angelic host crowned with light and our only hope of salvation being to trust in Jesus Christ, the only true light of the world. We might be tempted to follow other leaders, other paths, other lights, he admonished us sternly, but they were false and he would prove it.

He fished about in the pocket of his surplice, produced four candles, three striped, one plain white, stuck them in holders on the pulpit in front of him and lit them. Everyone stared intently at the candles. He certainly knew how to work an audience, that vicar.

The striped candles, he told us, were false prophets; the white one was Jesus who alone could stand firm against the forces of evil. Watch carefully. And he blew them out. Don't worry, he reassured us, when Jesus was crucified on Good Friday the disciples also thought that like the flame of this white candle, His life was extinguished for ever, but they were wrong. The light of Jesus could never be put out. That was why we were Christians and celebrated Easter. Just keep watching. So we did.

At Christmas, we'd had to wait quite a long time while two members of the choir held a sheet in front of the Nativity tableau showing baby Jesus lying in the manger surrounded by a few sheep. When they took it down - wham! The whole thing had been transformed into an all-singing, all-dancing Broadway stage set, flashing lights, falling snow, heavenly host, camels, wise men, the whole shebang. This would be the same, we thought.

So we waited and looked at the candles and the choir sang a few Hallelujahs to fill in the time and absolutely nothing happened. When it was clear that absolutely nothing was going to happen and people started giggling, including me I'm afraid, the vicar explained that the Jesus candle was supposed to relight (they're called magic candles - I've bought them for children's birthday parties) but the box must have been damp. Never mind, said the vicar, he was sure we got the point, and relit Jesus with his lighter.

But I do mind and that's the point. I wish I did believe in something. God knows, I should. I spent my formative years at a convent boarding school which meant most of Holy Week on our knees in chapel doing penance for the sins of the world, Sister Agnes de Sales used to tell us.

Good Friday was the worst. We didn't walk into chapel - we shuffled in on our knees singing psalms, right up to the altar where the big crucifix had been taken down and laid on the floor so that we could kiss the nails on Jesus's bleeding hands and feet. It was all a bit spooky on an empty stomach. (We fasted for the whole of Good Friday.) Some of the girls fainted. A whole lot more burst into tears when they got to the bleeding nails, especially when the nuns began to sing "Misere Mei", their thin voices wafting from the choir stalls like ghosts.

Still, we cheered up when we got back to the pews and played cat's cradles with our rosaries.

Last Wednesday, I went to King's College Chapel, Cambridge, to hear a special Holy Week Evensong which was being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Glorious setting, magnificent music, no magic candles. Forgive me, Lord, I don't get your message but some of your messengers are terrific.

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