My Christmas card to you this year is something of an oddity. 2016 has been a tough year for those of us who believe that love is more important than hate; and empathy more valuable than antipathy. Maybe I’m trying to sprinkle a little magic over a world I’m struggling to recognise. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.
Matthew Flanagan is not a man given to exercise. As a consequence he is fat. That he is also a priest and has a scar on his left forefinger are accidents of history.
In his youth Flanagan was considered a lazy child. Behind his passive, doughy features, however, seethed a tumultuous fever of imagination. From his earliest days he was drawn to the church, and his visions were never brighter than when he was kneeling dreamily in the pews. Rarely had any mind’s eye witnessed a Heaven so glorious, a Hell so infernal, or lowered itself in humility before the gaze of a benefactor so luxuriantly bearded. Nobody, least of all Matthew, ever wasted a moment wondering whether there was any vocation for him other than the priesthood, and they were right not to do so.
While his progress through the ministry was not meteoric, it was at least steady. If his seniors were a little wary of his charismatic tendencies, they were amused by his zeal. He served his curacy in Bradford Low Moor, a deprived parish which had been chosen in the hope that it might take the edge off his idealism. The effect upon him was more profound than his superiors had anticipated, however. Flanagan started to think.
All around him he saw cruelty, poverty and ill-health. What sort of God was it who could witness such injustice without interceding? He became dissatisfied, too, with Christian morality. Working amongst the immigrant communities with their different faiths, he discovered a collective morality which needed neither the carrot of Heaven ahead of it, nor the spur of Hell behind.
Slowly and subtly over many years his faith was undermined, until the day dawned when he finally had to admit that he no longer believed in God. Dispirited, disillusioned and in the autumn of his career, Flanagan might have quit his position that day. He did not.
If living and working in the estates had taught him anything, it was the importance of loyalty, and it was out of loyalty to his congregation that he did not resign. He saw himself as the anchor of their faith, and believed that his untimely resignation might cut them adrift in a sea of uncertainty. He did not doubt that the security of faith was infinitely preferable to the void which remained when one realised, as he had, that faith was founded upon a lie.
Flanagan also believed that it was important to conserve the sense of awe that faith inspired. True, it was fundamentally no different to the wonder experienced by a child at the pantomime, but where was the harm in that? The Father still took a party of children to the pantomime every Christmas.
It took onions to direct Flanagan toward his new destiny. His housekeeper had abandoned him for the day, leaving him to fend for himself. He was in the unfamiliar territory of the kitchen, red-eyed, barely able to see the Spanish onions he was chopping, when the knife slipped. By the time he had blinked away his tears, dark blood had welled up and was streaming from a deep cut on his knuckle. He held his finger under the cold tap and watched the water drain away crimson. It was at that moment that he had his idea.
Supposing that during the Consecration, the Accidents of the wine – its appearance, its taste, its
very molecular structure – were to change miraculously to those of blood. It had been recorded before. It was called the miracle of Transaccidentation. With one bold deception he co
uld confirm the faith of his congregation beyond doubt. Fat red drops beat a tattoo on the draining board in persuasive assent.
By the time he had collected half a tumbler of blood, he was beginning to feel faint. He hid the glass at the back of the freezer, wrapped a handkerchief around his finger and left the house. A short bus ride took him to the Royal Infirmary, where he was given a couple of stitches, a tetanus shot and two Paracetamol.
It was nearly two months later, shortly after dawn on the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost that he returned to the freezer and retrieved the glass. He left it on the worktop to thaw and went back upstairs to get ready for the service.
He returned later carrying his vestments. Concealing the glass under his surplice, he left the Presbytery and walked across the yard to the church. It was the work of a moment to empty the tumbler into the chalice and return it to the Tabernacle before he went to the vestry to enrobe.
As he changed he began to worry. Could he go through with it? Would he come to be regarded as an ecclesiastical superstar? Or would he be forced to resign in disgrace? The thought of the damage that his excommunication could do to the faith of his congregation was more than he could bear. After agonising for several long minutes, he finally had to admit to himself that he could not go through with it. He left the Vestry feeling foolish, but grateful that he still had the chance to dispose of the blood before anybody arrived.
As he entered the Nave his heart sank.
‘Good morning Father, I wonder if I could have a word?’ It was Mr Ashcroft, who had volunteered to read the lesson. He was worried about his duties and had arrived early to discuss his concerns. The Father dealt with him as sympathetically and as quickly as possible, but by the time he had finished the church had begun to fill up.
It was too late now to empty the chalice without causing comment. Sweat broke out on his upper lip as he struggled desperately to come up with another plan. At last an idea broke like dawn over his tortured brow. He would pretend to trip on his way from the tabernacle to the altar, and spill the contents of the chalice. There would be a collective gasp and a rustle of whispers, an altar boy would rush to refill the chalice, and that would be that.
He genuflected absently and stepped up to the lectern.
‘May the Lord be with you,’ He declaimed to a packed house.
‘And also with you,’ Came the ragged response. Not bloody likely, thought the Father.
The service unwound slowly, as if time had been protracted to extend his suffering. Mr Ashworth rose, ashen-faced, and stammered his way through the reading. The Father’s heart went out to the poor man. By the time the first bell rang for Communion, Flanagan’s mouth had dried up, and he struggled to choke down the pieces he broke from the Host. The bell tolled again and his heart raced: seconds out for the final round, he thought grimly. But like an observer at his own execution, he found himself watching helplessly as his Judas hands picked up the chalice and his feet advanced, unfaltering to the Altar. Drop the chalice, he urged himself silently, drop the wretched thing!
There was nothing else for it. He would have to swallow the lot and refill it. He raised the chalice to his lips, took a sip, and tasted the finest wine outside Cana.