Tuesday, April 3, 2012


April 5, 2012

Jesus is back on Broadway. In the revival of the hopelessly dated Godspell, he appears as the Profound Clown (not to be confused with the Holy Fool); in the revival of the more durable Jesus Christ Superstar, he appears as the victim of mass hysteria, glorified and vilified by the media, then literally crucified by the politicians (thus its durability).

A few miles uptown in the South Bronx, where "revival" has a different meaning, Jesus made an appearance too. Every year, on Palm Sunday, he takes to the streets as his followers ritually reenact his 15 minutes of worldly fame — the day he rode into Jerusalem as the contrarian king, "meek and riding on an ass," while his momentary enthusiasts strewed palm branches in his path.

Last Sunday, at the corner of Webster Avenue and 168th Street, several hundred Spanish-speaking parishioners of St. Augustine-Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church gathered in chilly and threatening weather to hail their King once more. Living in the bottom 25 of the 99%, they authentically represented the participants in the original, primordial event — the powerless, the illegal, the hungry, the homeless, the very ones that a certain politician recently declared he's "not concerned about" because "they have a safety net." These folks knew that already. They know all about the concern of politicians and about that fraying net. Here, with their church, they've found true concern, and a safety net that will never break.

There was some verisimilitude in the march. The people clutched palm fronds (imported from Florida; a few more years of climate change and New York may be growing its own). And yes, there was a donkey heading up the parade, and a native Bronx donkey at that, rented for the occasion from the Equestrian Center in Pelham Bay Park. The church's pastor, Rev. Thomas Fenlon, books one every year. Most of them have been big enough for a middle-school kid to sit on; this time they sent over a beast the size of an Irish wolfhound. But no matter — he was adorably cute and well-behaved, and ablly supported a fearless and frolicking little girl.

Father Fenlon told his congregation this was a "bilingual donkey," qualified to march both in the Spanish procession and in the English one that preceded it. His light-hearted words evoked the Biblical story of Balaam's ass, the talking donkey, recorded in chapter 22 of the Book of Numbers. The donkey rebukes his master for mercilessly beating him: "What have I done to you?" he pleads. "Am I not your own beast?"

Perhaps the donkey and the child had a conversation too. "If Jesus was a king, why didn't he ride a powerful white horse instead of a pack-animal like me?" "I don't know, donkey." "Nobody got it then, dear, and nobody gets it now."

As the procession made its way the half-mile up Webster Avenue to the church, the marchers shook their fronds and sang lustily: "¡Hosanna!" "¡Alabaré!" "¡Viva Jesús el Rey!" Cars pulled up to the priest, unmistakable in his red robes; he gave the drivers a palm and a prayer. High above the street, in the towering public-housing projects, tenants leaned out their windows and waved. Curious customers poured out of the bodegas and the liquor stores, some of them joining the crowd for a block or two with their bags of soda and chips or a pint of E&J brandy ("Easy Jesus," they call it here) in their pockets.


After the people had entered the church, their mood abruptly changed. In the Catholic liturgy of Palm Sunday, the procession is followed by the Gospel account of Jesus' trial and execution. The reading is done in oratorio fashion, with a narrator, the priest or deacon as Jesus, various individual speaking parts, and the congregation as the chorus.

When the trial of Jesus reached its climax and the befuddled Roman governor Pilate asked what the crowd wanted him to do with this guiltless man, the entire church roared out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" — as lustily as they'd sung "Hosanna!" just minutes before.

"Liturgy" in Greek means "the work of the people." It's not performance, it's participation. It's not the Great White Way, it's just the Way.

On Palm Sunday, it's real-time immersion in the unchanging fickleness of human nature, and no million-dollar musical can match it.

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