Milan, 19 April 2017
Some thirty years ago, when my wife and I were just beginning our journey together through life, I came down to Milan to spend Easter with her. At her mother’s suggestion, we went to a late-night service in the nearby basilica of Sant’Ambrogio
either on Good Friday night or Easter Saturday night (my memory is clouded on this detail). At the end of the ceremony, we all trooped out into the church’s atrium.
There, the presiding bishop put a light to a nice big bonfire which had been laid down earlier, and intoned loudly several times “Christus Resurrexit!”, “Christ is Resurrected!”. Now, since the resurrection of Christ is the central tenet of Christianity – without it, there would be no Christianity – you would think that the bishop would have shouted out this message with joy and gladness, or at least with a mild level of satisfaction. Not a bit of it! The fellow intoned it so mournfully as to make you wonder if he was sorry that the resurrection had ever taken place. Or maybe he enjoyed Lent a lot, fasting and praying and beating his breast, and was sorry that it was all over for another year. Or perhaps his hemorrhoids were acting up. Whatever the reason, the three of us agreed afterwards that the Bish had been a douche-bag, resurrection-wise.
Ever since that ceremony long ago, it has been in the back of my mind to attend it again, if only to see if succeeding bishops were a bit more joyful about it all. But as the Italians say, fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare, between the saying and the doing lies the sea (it sounds better in Italian, if only because it rhymes). This year I thought the time was finally ripe, but alas! either the ceremony was on Good Friday night, when we had just arrived back from Los Angeles and were in no fit state to take part in anything, or some boringly politically correct entity like Health & Safety services had decided in the intervening years that open bonfires in church atria were a no-no. Whatever it was, the bottom line was that there was no ceremony on Easter Saturday.
My wife decreed that nevertheless we should at least step into Sant’Ambrogio on Easter Sunday – something to do with a sort of atavistic belief that this would be a good day and place to receive a dose of sympathetic magic – and I grouchily agreed. So some time in the afternoon of Easter Sunday we made our way to the church, weaving our way through the few Milanese left in the city who were going for their Sunday stroll, we walked through the courtyard where there should have been the bonfire, and we entered the church.
Ahh! My nose was immediately greeted by the smell of incense which had been burned in earlier ceremonies, and I was transported back to my youth. I saw the boy that was me inhaling that fragrance, pungent but with sweet overtones, watching the smoke curling towards the ceiling, and generally enjoying one of the few bright spots during those weekly masses which I had to endure.
I also thought that swinging that thingy (which I later learned was called a thurible) from which all that thick smoke poured out was pretty cool.
In my teenage years, when I was finally considered responsible enough, I got to serve in High Masses as an altar boy and to swing the thurible (the idea being to pass air over the incense and keep it burning). Luckily, I never got into trouble as Edward Norton did in the film “Keeping the Faith”. Readers may remember the scene where as a young priest just starting out he gets to swing the thurible, which he does with such enthusiasm that he sets his robes alight and has to jump into the font of holy water to douse the flames.
A quick search of my favourite source of information – Wikipedia – informs me that the incense used in the Roman Catholic rites of my youth contains a varying mix of frankincense, myrrh, gum benjamin, copal, and a few other odds and ends.
Frankincense and myrrh …
“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Rings through the earth and skies.”
(I have cut the refrain)
That conjures up another image of my childhood, me in the school choir at primary school, doing the rounds of houses in the neighborhood, our choir master ringing the doorbell, and us launching into this and other Christmas carols when the occupants opened.
At the end of it all, we trooped over to the choir master’s house where his wife had prepared a buffet supper for us all, and where we got to taste just a little bit of the choir master’s home brew … Good times, those were.
Frankincense and myrrh … the gifts, along with gold, that those three wise men with such mysterious names – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior – are proffering to the child Jesus in those countless paintings of the Adoration of the Magi produced in centuries past.
They are also players in the crèches which appear every year at Christmastime in Italian churches, ranging from the simple
to the very elaborate.
As young children we prepared one at home under the overall theological supervision of our mother – the latter meaning that we were allowed to place other figurines in our possession, such as cowboys and Indians or various animals, in the background but not in such quantities as to crowd out the essential Christian message. The three wise men on their camels were placed far away from the manger in which Baby Jesus lay, and then every day after Christmas we children brought them a little closer, to end up at the manger on 6 January, the Day of the Epiphany.
It all looked all so easy to us, but T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Journey of the Magi suggests otherwise.
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Frankincense and myrrh … so desired throughout the Middle East and the broader Mediterranean world that its production centuries ago brought untold wealth to the Yemeni tribes which controlled the resin-bearing trees, allowing them to build cities like Shabwa, Marib, Baraqish.
They also brought untold riches to the tribes which controlled access to the incense route. This snaked its way up the western side of the Arabian peninsula, skirting the Empty Quarter and the Nafud desert, and culminating in Gaza. The wealth generated by the trade built cities like Avdat in the Negev
and helped build Petra in Jordan.
One day, if they stop hating and killing each other in this part of the world, my wife and I will go and visit the groves of frankincense trees
and we will travel the incense route, preferably on a camel.