Saturday, February 02, 2019

feting a local boy

We all commit sins of the flesh. It seems to be our nature.

Sondheim plays with that notion in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street when Todd asks Mrs. Lovett, who has hatched a plan to bake people into pies, if her priest pie is good. 

"Sir, it's too good at least/ Then again, they don't commit sins of the flesh/ So, it's pretty fresh."

Well, we did not have any meat pies yesterday afternoon, but we did have priests. Two of them. Along with a saint, faux Indian dancers, and singing congregants. And those joy-inducing cohetes -- sky rockets -- beloved of Mexican Catholics and dreaded by some northern visitors.

It was the first day of a 5-day feast celebrating our barrio's very own patron saint. San Felipe. Or, as we would say in English -- Saint Philip.

But not that Saint Philip. Not the one who was a disciple of Jesus and plays a recurring minor role in John's gospel. Or even the one who worked with Stephen to tend the Greek widows.

Nope. This is San Felipe de Jesús. A local boy

There will be all of the usual excuses during the next five days to indulge in mild passions of the flesh that accompany Mexican fiestas -- religious or otherwise.

It turns out this particular saint had a penchant for pleasures of the flesh himself.  Born of Spanish parents in Mexico City in 1572, he led the type of spoiled childhood we would expect of a son of the conquest.  Because he was born in Mexico (and not in Spain), his vocational opportunities were limited.

He took one of the routes open to him by joining a religious order -- the Franciscans.  But, his heart was not in it.  A couple months later, he left the order and decided to be a merchant (a lowly job for his birth) in the Philippines.

The kid may as well have been Hamlet.  Within a year, he decided he wanted to be a Franciscan. Again.  To be. Not to be. And to be, one more time. But he did not quite make his way back into the fold.

Because there was no bishop at the time in Manila to ordain him, he boarded a ship to return to Mexico where a bishop could re-admit him to his order.

Fortune was not Felipe's co-pilot. His ship was wrecked on the coast of Japan.  The Japanese feared the priests (along with all of the soldiers and cannon on board) were part of a European invasion. The Japanese had had enough trouble with the bothersome Portuguese. They did not need Spanish priests mucking around in their business.

Philip's end was not a pretty one (along with the other priests on the ship and several Japanese friars and priests -- 17 in all).  Their ears were sliced off. They were paraded through Japanese streets. And, then, in an act of religious parody that would have warmed the heart of ISIS, they were marched to the top of a hill, tied to crosses, and pierced with spears until they died. 

That was 1597.  Within 38 years, Japan was closed to all foreigners. Not that it mattered to Felipe.
He was dead at 25 with nothing much accomplished during his lifetime -- other than the fact that he died a martyr's death as a lapsed Franciscan. He was not canonized until 1862. But all of that was good enough for Mexico City to adopt him as its patron saint.

So, for the next four days, we will celebrate this prodigal son of the church. Of course, there will be daily processions with that home-town feel one can find only in small communities -- like Barra de Navidad or Springfield..

There is always the inevitable lilliputian carnival with its fusbol tables and mini-carousel.

We are even hosting some giant peripatetic rocking horses that have been making their way through the local villages. An opportunity for children to indulge in the sins of the horse flesh on mahogany mustangs.

Yesterday I accompanied the procession from my house wending through our neighborhood and then joined everyone at the church.

The dancers filled the aisle of the small, partly-completed church. The drums continued to beat. And the dancers circled and twirled before the altar -- reminding me of Anatole France's Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame.

France's tale is of a juggler who joined a monastery. When he could think of no other gift to offer a statue of Mary, he did what he knew how to do. He juggled. Juggled well.

And that is exactly what these Mexican women, dressed in their red and white "Indian" tunics and carrying their stylized weapons, were doing. They were offering up their talents to their faith.

The juggler's fellow monks were scandalized at his offering. But I had no doubt that these women were offering up their heart and faith on this festive day.

I hope we hear Jesus' words in our own hearts: "You go and do as [they] did."

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