Sunday, March 27, 2016
Our Italian Easter
We're watching a TV special on how they celebrate Easter in Europe but they've left out the most outlandish Easter celebration I've ever seen and I can't let the day go by without sharing it with you. Easter in Florence, Italy is like nothing you've ever seen. And we happened upon it totally by accident.
We hadn’t really planned to be in Italy for Easter, it just happened. We just went in the springtime of 2006 and Easter happened. When I figured it out I started asking around Florence about a good place in town for Easter services. The answer came back enthusiastic and unanimous: We must see the Scoppio del Carro. Translated, this means “Explosion of the Cart”.
Huh? They blow up things for Easter there? Wouldn’t a simple “Hallelujah” be enough? Or maybe some chocolate bunnies?
The tradition of Scoppio del Carro goes back to around the year 1,000. Wrap your brain around that one for a minute. A thousand year old tradition. The story goes that it started during the First Crusade when a guy from Florence went to Jerusalem and was the first man to climb the city walls. In exchange for his bravery (They don’t say why this was a brave thing to do; maybe it was a high wall or maybe somebody was shooting arrows at him) they gave him pieces of stone from the site where Jesus is believed to have been buried.
So far so good. Jerusalem and Easter. OK. When the guy got back to Florence he started using the stones to start a ‘holy fire’ that would be carried throughout the city as a religious symbol for all of Florence, Italy.
Then the story gets complicated, the way all traditions do after people start gussying it up. Around 1300 they started building an ornately decorated cart (carro) to transport the flame. The procession starts at another church where the original stones from Jerusalem are housed. The procession ends at the Piazza del Duomo where the grand cathedral stands.. There at the plaza the cart waits for a dove to fly out of the cathedral and ignite the fireworks inside the cart. According to the tradition if the cart explodes without a hitch, peace and prosperity would reign over Florence for the next year and they would have good crops. This sounded to me like what you would get if you combined the Fourth of July with Groundhog Day.
We decided to go watch them blow up the cart on Easter.
We were about an hour and a half early and there was already such a crowd in the plaza that I knew we wouldn’t be able to see much. The crowd had the same feel to it as Friday night in a small Texas town during football season. But because of the crowd we opted to watch the pageantry from inside the church. There was a pretty respectable group of folks inside, lined on either side of the main aisle of the cathedral. They had sturdy crowd barricades lining the center aisle. We picked a couple of seats close to the front and on the aisle. We could see the altar by leaning toward the main aisle. We had chosen wisely. There are two main centers of action for the event. Part happens inside the cathedral and part outside. We had ringside seats for the inside part.
The first thing I noticed inside the church was a green wood pillar about 20 feet high. Leaning against the pillar in the midst of this ornate renaissance chancel was a very simple brown wooden ladder, the most ordinary kind of ladder you could ever see—all it lacked was paint splatters. Coming out of the top of the pillar was a wire that fell to the ground and extended on the floor down the main aisle and out the door of the cathedral. Periodically a workman would climb the ladder and check on something at the top. At the top of the pillar sitting on this wire was a white wooden bird. It was about 6 inches high with tiny black eyes looking very intimidated. This dove, according to the tradition, was to swoop down the wire to the cart waiting outside and ignite the explosions. Now you can see why the bird looked a little uncertain about all of this.
At 11 am the cathedral was full and we heard a loud commotion outside the church. There was the clomping sounds from the oxen’s feet and the sound of a band with trumpets blaring. People looked down the aisle toward the open front door in anticipation. The sound got louder. The choir in black robes processed into the cathedral and up the aisle right past us. Then about 30 priests. The older ones wore white with gold trimmed brocade robes and the younger ones simply black. Then came a similar contingent of nuns. The church bells started ringing. I had already heard these bells at various times during the day walking around Florence. These are serious bells with a loud but beautiful deep, mellow sound. The wire connecting the bird inside the chancel to the cart outside began to taut. More trumpet music. I could hear the crowd outside.
Inside, the church choir began singing, making a contest between the choir inside and the football game music outside. The organ music swelled and suddenly, everyone knew to stand. A group of acolytes entered with one of them carrying a candle that had to be ten feet tall and about a foot thick. Then a huge cross. Then a flag. Then the Vatican Guard (We're talking about Easter morning in the grand cathedral in Florence, Italy remember) with their brilliant red and gold uniforms and ornate helmets, carrying long trumpets. But the parade wasn’t over: still more priests and a couple of uniformed police (The police here wear ornate uniforms with huge white hats.) followed by a couple of flags and a few city officials. By this time the chancel was crammed with clergy. Did I mention the archbishop wearing his magnificent tall white and gold mitre? Or the team of oxen outside who carried the 30 ft high cart into the plaza? The oxen had to wait outside in the plaza but every other official in the Roman Catholic Church except the Pope were all there.
Worship began in a rather quiet and dignified way. The liturgy was in Italian or Latin; since I can’t speak either, I couldn’t tell you. But I guess God speaks all languages and it doesn’t matter. After about five minutes I could make out one phrase said with great drama: “Espiritu Santo.” Holy Spirit seemed to be the cue because the priest holding the tall candle walked up to the bird and lit her tail. This was the fuse that would ignite the fireworks outside.
I would swear the bird’s expression changed from a blank stare to a very startled look. It straightened up for just a second then whizzed down the wire, tail feathers twirling in a merry dance. It was just fast enough to excite me and just slow enough to allow me to see it clearly. I got a funny feeling in my throat-- I couldn’t tell if it was a laugh or a sob. Within mere seconds the bird was out the door and the fireworks started in the plaza.
That’s pretty much when everything inside paused for a while. I heard the lady next to me say to her family that the bird eventually comes back up the wire inside the church. I passed this information along to Beaven and we waited. There was such an abundance of fireworks that smoke filled the doorway and we couldn’t really see anything. Once in a while we would see huge flames that I didn’t remember from any fireworks show I had ever seen. It made me worry that something had gone wrong. The object of this tradition is for the cart to explode but to still be able to use it for the following year. They’ve used the same cart for over 400 years now. Don’t ask me how they achieve this—exploding something without destroying it. But apparently the cart came out good to go for next year. After about 20 minutes of constant explosions the noise stopped and the center of activity shifted back to inside the church.
Then, amid every ornately-clad clergy person in the Catholic Church, one man wearing blue jeans and a work shirt climbed up the old brown ladder to the pedestal in the chancel. Once at the top, he pulled a pair of wire cutters from his back pocket, cut the wire and climbed down. The wire was pulled back out to the plaza. Beaven turned to me and said, “I hate to tell you this but I don’t think your bird is coming back.”
The focus returned to the worship service and after a while we found ourselves listening to a sermon in Italian for about 20 minutes. Being neither Roman Catholic nor Italian I sat and prayed my own private little Presbyterian prayer, ending with “God, you’ve got to get me out of this place, I gotta have a gelato.”
Thus ended our Italian Easter. It wasn’t the Vatican and it wasn’t First Presbyterian. But it was the stuff the church does best, no matter where they are, especially when they think God is watching them.