Snow has etched white lines into the wet, dark furrows in the fields. Spring is shivering underground, hiding under bark, cowering inside buds, slowed almost to a halt by the bitter winds from the east and the fallen, frozen flakes.
So it is, then, that we make our well-wrapped way to Mass, Atheist-man and I. Crosses made of palm-fronds lie in piles inside the door, waiting for the sprinkle of holy water that will render them blessed. I take two. Atheist-man looks slightly puzzled but says nothing. The puzzlement deepens as he turns to page 8 in the Mass book to find out what’s going on. By the time I sort him out (a number dropped off the board, obvs, it’s page 83) the first hymn is done, the first lesson begun.
Today’s different. You could say it’s bipolar but I probably shouldn’t. Let’s just say that it’s a service of two very distinct parts.
The vestments are red, the statues shrouded in purple. The priest, the deacon and altar servers process as we sing. The palms we clutch are now holy-water-blessed.
But the palm-waving crowd of the first part is fickle. A mighty fall is coming. In rides Jesus to Jerusalem, to praise and adulation. Minutes later – well, in today’s time – the end is nigh.
It’s a long gospel. The kindly priest tells us we may sit, if we need to, but no-one does.
The tragedy unfolds, doom-laden words intoned by three people on the altar – and by us.
Crucify him! Crucify him!
There. We have all done it. All said it. How easily we are swayed.
I’m one of the braying mob, if only for pretend, if only for today. Inflicting a cruel injustice on an innocent but dangerous man. A man from Galilee not Jerusalem, a man who threatens the powers that be, challenges the status quo.
It’s easy to blame the outsider. Anyone who’s different and – possibly – dangerous. The illegal immigrant or benefit scrounger, gangster scum or bogus asylum seeker. Anyone we don’t understand.
I look around the church as we ‘offer each other the sign of peace’ – shake hands, smile, make eye contact.
A whole lot of shaking’s going on. Not just handshakes but jolly waves across many rows of pews. This is more than the polite and temporary breakdown of the cell walls that divide strangers, the kind of ‘kiss of peace’ I’ve been used to from churches I’ve attended over the years.
I feel a deep pang of envy. Not a serious, ‘I-hate-you-why-not-me’ kind of envy, but more of a ‘sigh, I wish, if only’ kind of envy.
Saints Peter & Paul is full to the brim with families, friends and – for all I know – foes. People who were born here, grew up here, went to school here. People who married, procreated, worked, played, retired here. People who were happy and sad, healthy and sick here. A couple on their golden wedding anniversary, waiting with their friends for a blessing after Mass.
I’m an outsider. Born a mere 25 miles away I might just as well be from Texas, where Atheist-man once belonged. A real outsider.
People talk a lot about roots. Where are mine, I wonder? They aren’t geographical that’s for sure. Yes, I can slip back into the comfortable armchair of ritual, the church – but still, it’s not my roots. I’ve been a pot plant a very long time, on many a different windowsill. I took my chances and this is the price.
No, I’ve never been part of anything like this. Well, except maybe school. And I don’t just mean the church – it goes beyond that, it’s the town. The people here form a very real community, whether they know it or not (I suspect many of them don’t). They may not act like a community in public, but in private, it’s there, like sinews beneath the skin.
It’s something special, in this day and age. It’s a family of a kind. A family of many families, of many generations.
And, yes, families can be claustrophobic, restricting, limiting – maddening. But at least then you have something to kick against, to spur you on to rebel. To be different. To be dangerous. To become an Archbishop, a trade-union leader, an actor, musician, footballer, paralympian, radio-presenter. Like some of this town’s finest.
To make a difference.
The irony is that, for all the friendliness, humour, community and embedded-ness that we admire in this place, we are outsiders in a town of insiders, Atheist-man and I. We’re more at home – more welcome, perhaps – in places without the community we admire. With other pot plants on another windowsill.
As we walk to the car a woman speaks to us. Someone we don’t know (of course). That’s nice. We talk about the wind, the weather.
Behind her the graveyard forms a backdrop. It should be bleak, on this oh-so-wintry day, but somehow it looks comforting. Serene stone angels smile, their hands forever joined in prayer. Row after row of crosses, books and urns. Plain stones inscribed with messages of love and hope, sadness and wisdom.
I think of what Atheist-man said the other week.
‘I don’t remember seeing graveyards when I was growing up in the US. It’s healthy, living with them, don’t you think?’
Strange. But possibly true.