We hear it before we see it. Sometimes, it’s the somber snap of the funereal snare. Sometimes, it’s the ladies’ choral recitations of the rosary, scratching through a tinny speaker. Then there they are, processing past our apartment building. It is Good Friday, the day of Christian upheaval and ruined expectations, and in a moment, my tree-lined Brooklyn street transforms into the final stretch of the Via Dolorosa.
It was confusing, so unexpected, the first time I experienced this annual ritual in my neighborhood, started by the Italian immigrants who arrived here well over a century ago. My wife and I stared down from the window of our third-floor walk-up as the first police car rolled by, blue and red lights flashing across the brownstones, and a single snare led the American, Vatican, and Italian flags. Then came the robed crucifer, cross raised aloft, the priest and his robed attendants, two plumed Knights of Columbus. Strong pallbearers carried Jesus on their shoulders.
Jesus is life-sized, but not life-like. He is dead, stiff, and naked in a glass casket. Hundreds of tiny LED lights run the length of the coffin, illuminating the corpse, modern technology and old ritual labor together in concert.
Two columns of black-clad ladies carry candles. Antiphonally, their prayers echo off the brownstones. Behind them is Our Lady of Sorrows, a dagger through her heart. She’s larger than life, naturally, fashioned in the southern Italian town Mola di Bari, ancestral home of this immigrant community. The Italian funeral band, a bass drum and mournful brass, brings up the rear.
At first the death of Catholic Jesus unnerved my Northern European Protestant sensibilities. We Protestants tend to treat the cross so antiseptically. At worst and most profane, it becomes a bloodless, decontextualized device of execution looped casually around the neck. But here is a great and terrible cross, glowing, bathed in demonic blood-red, adorned with the instruments of the Passion: the crown of thorns, the holy lance, the nails, the rest.
The mannequin in the glass box upsets me. It looks not real, or maybe more than real, like the special effects of a Dario Argento horror movie, full of oversaturated reds full of chiaroscuro. The statues have that quality of Italian shrines–waxy, almost embalmed skin with painstakingly painted wounds, beard, and loincloth. Mary’s dress and mournful eyes. They are not human, and they are all too human. As human as can be traditionally made, artistically fashioned.
To describe this as “something out of The Godfather” cheapens what passes before us. Cinematic art imitates life – or rather death, in this case. And yet, as an outsider, I rely on accessible references to understand and describe what we are experiencing. In Protestant America, there has always been an othering of Roman Catholicism, alternately demonizing and co-opting it as convenience and prejudice demand. Italian, Latino, Irish, French. It doesn’t matter: we’ll devour the cuisine and exploit the holidays as we go, flattening and stripping the meanings as we see fit. The procession on my street dismantles all of that. We stand silently and watch.
This somber procession is a public display with an internal, closed-circuit logic. They ignore us as they pass, as if we’re looking in. And yet the whole spectacle is for us to see. It means to draw us out of our houses onto the sidewalk and to keep us entranced. Unexpectedly, we’re a part of this vivid reminder that Christ has been crucified. Dirge and art after the last light of day pull us into the performance.
The paradox of the god-man lays bare on the street. Religion performed outside, performed openly, transgresses something. What role does the neighborhood play? It is the audience. It is the stage. It is the world, a microcosm of everywhere. And as all distance collapses, the moment of two thousand years ago in Jerusalem happens on a Brooklyn night, when the street lamps eclipse the stars above.
I never join the small crowd following behind to the church, though I get excited now when I hear them coming. People come from New Jersey and Connecticut for this, this moment of resistance, of paisano Italy far removed from the gentrifying wealthy who increasingly own Brooklyn’s historic brownstones. But it’s not my world. I only know how to participate by standing and watching and reflecting on this awful day.
And this is the point. The public spectacle of this death makes us all bystanders. The gospels describe various bystanders: disciples, mothers, soldiers, the crowd. There are lots of people standing around, watching. And in standing we are drawn into the story. We are suddenly part of the story. We are the crowd, who gawks and stares at the condemned man passing before us.
There is no such procession on Sunday. That’s part of the deal. Good Friday is cast out into the darkness, out among the people – the darkness where we all stand and gape. Easter is the empty tomb two days later. Here in this moment, Easter is nonexistent.
As I get older, mortality, mine and everyone’s and even the Earth’s, looms larger. As I get older, Easter becomes more radical, more absurd, more expensive. But the stumbling block of Good Friday remains. In my heart, I am still processing it all. In my heart, with those on my street, each year I am still processing.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Burke Gerstenschlager
Burke Gerstenschlager is a writer and former academic book editor. He has a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School and frets about God at his blog, Bleak Theology (http://www.bleaktheology.com).