This weekend, J and I went to the North End to check out Saint Joseph’s Feast, the latest in a series of religious festivals that happen every summer in Boston’s Italian enclave. Of the various photos I shot of this year’s feast, my favorite is this one featuring a rather dejected-looking Saint Joseph statue draped in ribbons in an empty shrine.
The sight of this small statue standing forgotten while a larger, more colorful one was paraded through the neighborhood, stopping at every block so admirers could drape him with scapulars pinned with money, immediately reminded me of the ending of James Joyce’s “Araby,” in which an adolescent boy eagerly anticipates attending a local bazaar. Arriving late, the boy is disappointed to find half of the stalls closed or closing, the bazaar filled with a “silence like that which pervades a church after a service.” As the boy tries to find an acceptable gift for a girl he likes, he is disappointed to realize the wares are cheap and tawdry, not elegant or exotic as he had hoped.
I’m guessing we’ve all had moments like the one James Joyce describes in “Araby,” when we’ve realized something we once thought was magical is merely ordinary. The shrine in which Saint Joseph sat was a handmade thing, framed with ordinary wooden boards and adorned with tin foil and electrical lights. By night, Saint Joseph’s shrine must look heavenly to a child, lit with an otherworldly glow; viewed by adult eyes in the light of day, it’s just another facade for yet another festival.
Great care goes into the planning of any religious feast–imagine the devotion and dedication it took to design and apply every inch of tin foil–and yet at the end of the day, what lies underneath the pomp and spectacle is the stuff of ordinary life. Saint Joseph’s feast parades down the same old street that residents use every day; every year, these North End festivals happen in the same old neighborhood. We can, on special occasions, dress up the drab sites of our mundane lives, but ultimately the same old substance lies under the spiffed-up surfaces. Calling a bazaar “Araby” doesn’t make it any more exotic: bazaar-goers are still stuck in a nondescript corner of Dublin, and they still go home to their same old Monday-morning lives.
And yet, perhaps this is the wisdom of a religious festival, at least a Christian one. The very idea of incarnation insists that God himself took on ordinary flesh to dwell in the mundane world: before Joseph was a saint, he was just another dad to yet another kid. Every now and then, a bazaar comes to town and brings with it a break from the usual routine, and once upon a time, God adorned himself in flesh, was born in humble stall made of boards, and lay otherwise forgotten while the world distracted itself with its usual pomp and frivolity.