The Paschal Phoenix
by A. Sebastian Fortino
The sunlight pouring in through the arched, Victorian clerestory windows of the nave at Trinity Memorial Church on Easter Morning recalled my friendship with Andrew. Recalling those memories was fitting because I was standing as godfather to Andrew’s infant son, Alexander, that morning. Of course, this sacred occasion was almost marred by my being late. My taxi dropped me off on a bright spring morning that still smacked of winter as I frantically dialed Andrew’s cell phone. When he didn’t pick up I ran through the side entrance, into the church’s Sunday school and fellowship rooms. There, half my life ago, I once attended Maundy Thursday dinners with Andrew’s family. I entered through the side entrance of the sanctuary, already expecting mother, father, baby, godmother-aunt, grandfather, and grandmother arranged around the Baptismal font with the blessed water already being poured over the infant’s head.
No one, I imagined, would let me slip in quietly wearing my cropped trench coat, and carrying a large Jack Spade bag unnoticed; especially of course the grandmother in question. In high school I slightly feared Andrew’s mother, who was known to me as an often-accusatory voice through her household intercom system. So of course being late to act as godfather to her firstborn grandchild – in her church, before her family, neighbors, and friends – seemed inevitably appropriate.
Mercifully my watch said it was ten-thirty-two, and I was blessedly only two minutes late. Two minutes in my mind only however, as the baby’s attendees were expected to be there at ten-fifteen to prepare. In reality, therefore, unfortunately, as usual, I was truly late: by seventeen minutes. However, I found the baby’s family arranged in the first row of chairs to the left of the circular altar. The infant Alexander was blessedly still burdened with Original Sin.
Had I come in through the main doors of the Church I could have slipped into the row behind them, quite unnoticed. I am doomed however in that my entrances are never anonymous. Although she was wearing a large-brimmed hat, appropriate for an Episcopalian of Rittenhouse Square, the grandmother was the first to look up, turn around and discover me standing there.
“And look who’s here,” she said. “The godfather.” I swear I saw her gently glance at her watch before she named me by title. Perhaps, had I been any later, she would have nominated someone else.
Andrew looked up, his face blushed with anxiety, a product perhaps of the fact that I was going to and was indeed late. His wife looked up too. As she did not know me very well she was unsurprised at my semi-prompt arrival. The baby beheld me with an air of indifference, and would later confide in me at the following meal he was a Quaker. He did not care for the rituals of the Anglican Communion. I slipped into the back row, safely behind the grandmother. The congregants began to sing, and returning to teenage years I awkwardly looked to Andrew for permission to sing out. Little was granted as he stumbled over the words on the program before him. The baby turned occasionally at me, in his mother’s arms, and – as he made eye contact with me and reacted to the faces I made – I felt as if he was truly something, someone to me. He was not just Andrew’s son, but my godson, and he did not care that I was tardy.
I tried to follow the service but found the baby, the sunlight, the smell of the hyacinths, and the sound of the singing, to be too much stimulation for me to concentrate. My eyes instead wandered over the congregation, hoping to find faces I knew underneath the sunlit nave. There were none. Until I found a face that seemed to be familiar, but perhaps I was confusing her with Patricia Routledge, of BBC’s “Keeping Up Appearances.” She was not hatted and gloved, but her floral dress with a bow at the neck and string of pearls vaguely reminded me of someone from my youth, a mother of one of Andrew’s friends, perhaps.
The recognition was vague, it self-implied insanity, or was merely the dregs of wine from the birthday dinner I attended the night before. The baby, now returned to his carrier, meant I could not focus on his little face for diversion. After about thirty minutes, during which the priest, Father Ted, or Ed, had apologized for the Baptism replacing the opportunity for a lengthy Easter sermon we took our places at the Baptismal Font. The baby did not cry, and was peacefully handed over to Father Ed, or Ted. He held the baby face down into the font, claiming Alexander was too curious to receive the Sacrament at four months faced-up. Then, he remembered something. He called all of the congregation’s children up to the font to welcome the baby into Christendom. I should point out two things. Firstly, Father Ed or Ted was the most zealous kind of religious: a convert. I had a friend whose mother finally converted from Presbyterianism to her husband’s Catholicism, within two years she was secretary to the local archbishop.
Secondly, children have never been a particular favorite of mine, even when I was a child. He mentioned calling the children up to the altar the day before, when godmother-aunt and I were debriefed on the office of godparent. I had ardently hoped the invitation to the children would be one of the things the ambitious priest forgot. You see, my lapsed, Roman Catholic mind oddly thinks of all these modern, progressive, ecclesiastical innovations as heresy akin to Martin Luther’s Ninety-Nine Theses. Father Ed, or Ted’s, other modern, progressive suggestions did not end there. One idea united with the Eastern and Orthodox Churches and involved giving the infant Holy Communion. He would be force fed a morsel of bread dipped in wine, but this did not go over with the infant’s mother.
She cited giving the baby alcohol as a negative. Fortunately I did not tell her I thought it was fine. Nor give examples of my parents rubbing my teething gums with Sambuca, or that they put a teaspoon of brandy into my milk if I was not going to sleep. That I was rarely a bad childhood sleeper should be noted for the sake of my parents.
Standing in the church with Andrew’s family made me think on the past, not of little Alexander’s future. Andrew was the first WASP I became friends with, and really the first Protestant. The Italian- and Irish-American, newly, so-called, Born-Again Christians I knew from my days at an Assembly of God School did not count to me as Protestants: they were Vatican traitors who spoke to me menacingly of reading their family’s discarded Catholic Bibles on the toilet. That they tossed my Confirmation Bible around like a football was fortunately met with disapproval from the school’s administrators.
After the actual Baptism I involved myself in singing, awkwardly, quietly, happy to know I was not being neglectful in not offering to hold the baby. Mother, step- and grandmother, and godmother, the sole paternal sibling-aunt, dutifully held the baby who did not cry, even when the holy water was poured over his head.
“We warm the water a little bit,” the priest, Father Ed, or Ted, boasted the day before. This was the only modern, progressive idea impressive to me. I wondered if the Catholics had taken such care with me as a novitiate into their flock.
Instead of looking at the congregants this time I looked up into the sunlight that drenched the church. We sang and remembering the Maundy Thursday Dinners and other hallmarks of our teenage years I looked at Andrew. Then his infant son, his wife holding him in the sunlit church, and it all made me very sad, yet very thankful. Andrew, you see, had gone to Afghanistan right after the attacks on my then-home New York, and didn’t think he’d come back. I hoped but didn’t know that he would live to have a child that would one day be named my godson.
I didn’t want to cry. People cry at weddings, and funerals. The only people that cry at Christenings? Babies. I looked up into the sunlit clerestory once more, at the fanciful Victorian stained glass to prevent tears. Then, lost in the preponderance of childhood memories, going to the video store wearing baggy jeans, the meaning of the phrase “friend of the family,” the delight in being a godfather, the beauty of life, the smell of hyacinth, Andrew’s returning home unscathed – In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the third, modern, progressive element of Father Ted, or Ed interrupted my partial tears. To symbolize the rebirth of the Spirit on Easter Sunday the priest intended to fly a kite over the heads of the congregation.
No: not something droll, like an Easter Bunny to involve the children, but a phoenix.
A phoenix after all rose from the ashes, much like Trinity Memorial Church that had suffered a fire several years before the arrival of the current priest, and more importantly, Christ Himself in the Resurrection. The kite was mounted on a long rod, similar to a deep-sea fishing pole.
Yes – like the children at the altar – this was something I hoped the priest would forget.
The phoenix itself is a mythical creature; therefore its plumage was substituted with peacock feathers. The “eyes” of which were a Christian symbol of the Medieval Church, depicted in religious art as the all-watching eyes of God. Peacocks however, do not really fly, and once again I thought myself insane. This time not for the woman who would later confirm she was the mother of a certain Phillip, the lady who looked like Patricia Routledge, but for trying to attach any facts about peacocks and phoenixes to the priest’s nylon kite. I was not alone however, being lost in such details. Andrew, later on the drive to Easter and christening lunch, also expressed confusion over the kite.
“It looked like a peacock, they don’t fly,” he laughed, while cursing the GPS system announcer, named something unlikely, like Caldonia. “Why not make it look like a dove? Why not like a damn eagle?”
But perhaps that was the military talking.
Although I wanted to look away from the phoenix in mid-flight it proved impossible. My eyes followed it as it was flown over our heads, manned by the priest in vestments. He held the deep sea fishing pole like a glorified Fisher of Men in a Caravaggio painting. The symbolic phoenix was not passed over our heads just once or twice, or even three times in honor of the trinity. It made its flight consistently throughout the closing hymn. Its yellow, three-dimensional talons provoked me to imagine it landing on someone’s hat or lifting a child into the air. I finally turned my attentions toward to the congregants once more, afraid of laughing out loud at the mid-air kite. The congregation however also stared at the phoenix, with expressions that varied from confusion to awe. My attention returned to the phoenix when it began to descend. As it artfully circled in increasingly narrower spirals to the altar, one of the plumes of the synthetic phoenix touched one of the Paschal candles surrounding the altar.
Try as I might to contain it a single laugh coughed out of me. The possibilities for disaster instantly, irreverently, took over my thoughts. What if the bird flamed up? What if it then ignited the ceiling and set the Church aflame? Again, just as it had thirteen years before? Wouldn’t that be strangely symbolic? I laughed again.
Just then, my biggest fear, the grandmother, turned around. She was going to make an accusing face. She was going to put her finger up to her mouth to shush me for laughing at the kite at her grandson’s baptism. I would not be invited for the following luncheon. She would not believe my eyes were red from emotion, maybe some tears, and laughter. This sentimental, special, title of godfather would be stripped. Alexander would only learn of me in hushed tones, perhaps opening with the phrase, “Your father used to have this friend…”
Surely, she would point out, that I was the only one in the church to laugh at the priest’s misfortune, or near-misfortune. This fact boomed out silently over the memory of the intercom in Andrew’s childhood bedroom. I flashed warm. Then oddly regretted wearing only a cashmere-cotton sweater and soft gray chinos, no tie, no blazer. Yet, her look was unexpected beneath her Easter hat. She did not criticize me. Instead, she smiled then quietly laughed with me, as fleetingly as the synthetic kite was hoisted, from the now-extinguished flame of the Paschal Candle. The phoenix, fulfilled its mystical promise, and through the miracle of synthetic fabrics did not catch fire.