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February 26th, 2020 | 4 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

Christ walks the world again, His lute upon His back,
His red robe rent to tatters, His riches gone to rack,
The wind that wakes the morning blows His hair about His face,
His hands and feet are ragged with the ragged briar’s embrace,
For the hunt is up behind Him and His sword is at His side, . . .
Christ the bonny outlaw walks the whole world wide,

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me,
Lie among the bracken and break the barley bread?
We will see new suns arise in golden, far-off skies,
For the Son of God and Woman hath not where to lay His head.”

Christ walks the world again, a prince of fairy-tale,
He roams, a rascal fiddler, over mountain and down dale,
Cast forth to seek His fortune in a bitter world and grim,
For the stepsons of His Father’s house would steal His Bride from Him;
They have weirded Him to wander till He bring within His hands
The water of eternal youth from black-enchanted lands,

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me,
Or sleep on silken cushions in the bower of wicked men?
For if we walk together through the wet and windy weather,
When I ride back home triumphant you will ride beside Me then.”

Christ walks the world again, new-bound on high emprise,
With music in His golden mouth and laughter in His eyes;
The primrose springs before Him as He treads the dusty way,
His singer’s crown of thorn has burst in blossom like the may,
He heedeth not the morrow and He never looks behind,
Singing: “Glory to the open skies and peace to all mankind.”

Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with Me?
Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath;
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain . . .
If we perish in the seeking, . . . why, how small a thing is death!”

Dorothy L. Sayers, “Desdichado,” Catholic Tales and Christian Songs, 1918

The sign on the door of Beata Vergina del Rosario read “Fino a nuove disposizioni del ministero della salute della regione Friuli Venezia Giulia, tutti le funzioni religiose previste in questa chiesa dono sospese.”

In other words, no Ash Wednesday services, because coronavirus.

It’s true in Venice as well as here in Trieste—across Northern Italy. And so I’m sitting here in the Caffe San Marco without ashes.

It seems to me that collective penance would be more likely to help than anything else. But I’m no minister of public health.

And so I am left to myself to think about Carnevale, and Lent, and how they are related. And what I think I see is that they’re not opposites. They both, fundamentally, are about freedom.

I’m enough of an Aristotelian, and I understand the creation mandate in a traditional enough way, that I push back against the complete lighthearted renunciation of… say civic power, political power, responsibility in and for the material world. We are called to form and fill, we are called to order, we are called to be vicegerents, Kings and Queens in the King. And we will. I say that at the beginning of this so as not to be misunderstood.

But what both Carnevale and Lent tell us is that we are not slaves to the terms in which power and safety are presented to us.

I’m not safe, now.

I mean, I’m fine, there haven’t been any cases in Trieste yet, I’m healthy, etc. I am in fact a lot safer than I would be (probably) trying to cross Queens Boulevard, all things considered, and statistically: really, there are so many things that we do all the time that are more dangerous than Not Going Back To Manhattan; and if I were in New York and coronavirus hit, where would I go? It’s just the uneasiness of Being Abroad that makes me feel, on some level, an instinct to run home. But, you know, I’m a little… this just feels a little uncertain.

I’m staying—at least a little longer.

It is almost certainly bogus to try to make this connection. But it feels at least slightly right. Carnevale and Lent are both about the fundamental inversion, the not-grasping-after-safety, of Christianity.

We can turn the world upside down, we can have a Boy Pope, we can have the topsy-turvy power relations of Carnevale, and we are, really, safe because that power inversion was tossed to us by Christ. We can renounce luxury and the goods of the world, of the flesh, because we have a better good.

It’s the paradox of the Franciscans, which I have resisted, in the past, being an instinctive Dominican. But to understand some of these groups—some Franciscans, some Anabaptists, some Catholic Workers, many others—one must feel the way they feel their calling: in a serious-though-lighthearted way.

How can I say this? The madcap carelessness of Carnevale is made possible by the renunciatory freedom of Lent. We don’t need luxury, we don’t even need to stay alive. We can fast, and we can die. And that knowledge of our ashes allows us the light heart of Carnevale, allows us to overturn the solemn and grasping structures of the world. We can laugh, because we are not afraid to cry. What’s the worst they can do? We don’t need to win, because Christ has won. We don’t need to fear lack, because we have everything already. That solemn lightness, that lack of fear, is, I think, one of the signal graces of the Holy Spirit. And in this time of ashes, the ashes which I do not have on my forehead, I am reminded that that Christ is the phoenix, and he rises from the ashes.

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.