Yesterday evening we were witnesses to our Saviour’s Last Supper.
We saw Christ wash the feet of his disciples: We saw Judas Iscariot betray him and then, too late, repent.
We saw him carry the Cross through the steep cobbled streets of the Via Dolorosa.
We saw Simon of Cyrene help Jesus carry the cross when he couldn’t convey it any more.
We saw Christ enter the Mount of the skull called Golgotha. We heard the relentless beat of the drums of the Roman centurions pressed into a service they knew nothing about nor cared for.
We saw the narrow alleys lighted with torches to show Jesus the way to the end of his earthly life. We saw all this with our own eyes, we felt every blow with our body, we sensed the tears on our cheeks as indeed on the cheeks of all those present and helpless to do anything about the inexorable words of the Scriptures to be fulfilled.
Throughout Italy, indeed throughout the world, the Passion of Christ is re-enacted in so many different variants. In certain parts of Latin America nails transfix the hands and ankles of those who enact our Saviour’s last earthly moments. In more “sober” parts of the world that greatest of greatest pieces of music ever written – the music which will be certainly heard at the last trumpet, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passion according to Saint Matthew – is listened to in deep meditation without applause and with an inner stillness – as we used regularly to hear at Saint George’s Hanover Square London before moving to Italy.
Different countries, different cultures but the same God. And so, at the incredibly beautiful walled and fortified town of Castiglione di Garfagnana, a veritable likeness of an ancient Jerusalem if there ever was one, every year on Holy Thursday the procession of the Crocioni takes place. We first witnessed this overpowering ceremony over ten years ago when we were in the area for the first time and were very moved by what we experienced. In 2014, after a long absence, we returned to witness this poignant Passion. Again, last night we returned and were equally stirred.
Castiglione’s church is, from the exterior, a wonderful example of an ancient Luccan Romanesque style –
but its interior reveals a joyous baroque glory, rather like the bright filling of a dark chocolate cake.
To one side of the church square is the chapel of the confraternity of the Holy Sacrament, rich with the most wonderful examples of church furnishings and paraphernalia used for centuries upon centuries – truly the faith of Castiglione’s forefathers who, while often so poor themselves, spared nothing to create a little heaven of their own for the Creator to accept.
Inside the church was packed. The priest celebrated Mass and by his sides were the twelve apostles seated at tables with wine tumblers, plates and unleavened bread. The parish priest had now assumed the role of Christ himself – the liturgical responses of the Mass “Take and eat – this is my body…. Drink, this cup is the new covenant established by my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.” A reawakened realism had assumed a fresh life distinct from the repetition which sometimes dulls these immortal words of the Eucharist.
The parish priest then enacted the part narrated in the Bible when Christ washes the feet of his disciples as described thus in St John’s Gospel:
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him,and that was why he said not every one was clean.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
Then from an ancient mediaeval cupboard in the sacristy in which he had been hidden and bound, stepped forth the one who would represent the Christ on his last journey in Jerusalem. Covered with a hood so as not to be recognised by anyone, and so as not to take any pride and glory to himself for enacting, this terrible part, Castiglione’s cross-bearer, chained, with a crown of thorns on his head knelt before the high priest – the parish priest had now become Caiaphas – and then the mob, the relentless mob and the Roman army thrust the cross (weighing 100 kilos I am informed) onto the man – “Ecce Homo” – kissed by Judas.
And so the procession weaved its away out of the church and up and down the often incredibly steep streets of this fabled town transformed into that Jerusalem of two thousand plus years ago and lit only by torchlight and the myriad stars which came out in a night sky that seemed absolutely cosmic. A chorus of girls and women intoned Passionist hymns, the Roman centurions drummed their obsessive loud funereal beats, and the sound, the awful sound of the chains of Christ dragging on the stones, and all this witnessed by the population which was largely local – no coachloads of tourists for this event which is an intense act of Christian devotion peculiar to this part of Garfagnana and which dates back centuries.
And so equally the centuries were wiped away and, more than any Mel Gibson or Zeffirelli film we were transported there, to the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ in a way that no other means could have ever taken us.
And as I write this on Good Friday, listening to Bach’s own Passion, so many more things mean so much more to me that no more words can possibly come out to describe what I feel.
And, again, we shall never know who enacted the part of Christ that evening at Castiglione di Garfagnana. Like Saint Peter who felt he was not worthy enough to be crucified the same way as Jesus but decided to be nailed upside down to the Cross, so that local inhabitant of Castiglione, like all those who preceeded him in this timeless ceremony through the ages, would remain anonimous lest pride should exalt his humiliation of acting the part of Jesus.
(Several Photographs by Courtesy of Alexandra Pettitt)
And we could not tear away the thought that at that moment there were hundreds of innocent victims in Belgium who were suffering the pains of their own crucifixion at the hands of mindless, indifferent humans (if such they could be termed) just as it happened over two thousand years ago and just as it was enacted before our very eyes in a remote fortified town in the heartland of the mountains of the Garfagnana in northern Tuscany.