There is a famous scene in one of the Morecambe and Wise shows from the 1980s. The guest was the conductor André Previn, who sadly died earlier this year, and Eric Morecambe was supposed to be playing Grieg’s Piano concerto. Inevitably the rendition failed to reflect the composer’s score and a frustrated Previn declared that Morecambe was not playing the correct notes. Seizing hold of the lapels of Previn’s jacket, Eric Morecambe menacingly announced: “I am playing all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order!”
The quip takes my mind back to a Good Friday celebration of the Passion in Kenya some years ago. I was working in the parish of Kilgoris in the spectacularly beautiful Trans-Mara part of that East African country. The area covered was large and the parish was dotted with numerous outstations where the local communities would gather on Sunday for services led by the catechist. This pastoral care was augmented by the occasional visit by a priest to celebrate the eucharist and other sacraments.
It had become a tradition on Good Friday to undertake a procession of witness from one such outstation to another. Huge crowds gathered before setting off and raising a cloud of red dust as the throng threaded out along the pathways that wound across the savannah, connecting the isolated villages and homesteads. At appropriate points (‘appropriate’ often designating the presence of an acacia tree that might offer a modicum of shade from the equatorial sun) the crowd would stop to mark a station with words and prayers often accompanied by a drama put on by the young people of the community. Competition between the outstations to host the end of the procession of witness and celebrate the service of the Passion was fierce.
The particular year I have in mind saw a deviation from the norm and, instead of heading towards a large and relatively central outstation, it was decided to head into the bush and visit a boma, or homestead, of a Maasai community. The pastoralist and nomadic Maasai have been slow to respond to the Gospel but a few members of that village had shown a tentative interest and a catechist paid a weekly visit to slowly introduce them to the life and message of Christ. A visit by the procession of witness on Good Friday was intended to bolster their incipient faith.
As the crowd sang their way towards the final destination the air began to change its flavour. The scent of the dry yellow grass, the musky smell of wild animals and the gritty taste of the dust began to give way to other scents. First, it was the unmistakable sweet odour of wood-smoke that drifted lazily on the light dry-season breeze. But this was soon augmented by the surprising but distinct aroma of roast meat!
Entering the circle of squat adobe dwellings, we first passed a clearing where the earth was red with the fresh blood of the slaughtered animals. In the village centre we were greeted with song, the statuesque Maasai women ululating and their multi-coloured bead necklaces dancing on their bare shoulders as they moved to the rhythm of music.
A few benches were produced for the elderly while the rest of the Christians who had trekked to this village sat of the ground. Soured milk with a distinctly smoky taste was served from gourds that had been cleaned with burning charcoal. Then the men appeared with the meat, great chunks of freshly roasted beef and goat served to all and sundry. The visiting Catechist had successfully imparted the significance of Easter to this nascent Christian community but his instruction had clearly not reached the part about Good Friday being a day of fasting and abstinence!
It was a truly joyous occasion. Tired limbs were forgotten as a shared faith brought the disparate ethnic communities together. Hymns were sung and more meat eaten before we visitors began to drift away as the sun sank lower in the afternoon sky.
It was a Good Friday the likes of which I had never experienced before or since. It was something special. It didn’t conform to the rules associated with the penitential nature of the day but somehow those few Maasai catechumens had revealed an exuberant joy in anticipation of the feast of the Resurrection that refreshed and inspired the faith of those of us with a longer Christian heritage.
I like to think of it as the year when the Easter Triduum was celebrated, but not necessarily in the right order.
Dr Mark Faulkner is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Religions and Philosophies, School of History, Religions and Philosophies at SOAS