Authors: Mark Wheaton
Tags: #General Fiction
Sunday Billy Sunday
Southbound – 2009
To Phil, because this happened and we survived it...
We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents
— 1 Corinthians 10:9
Good Friday meant flower deliveries for Sunday church services would start arriving around noon on that, the last business day of the week. They’d have been cut at the hot house on Tuesday or Wednesday to then be delivered to any of several dozen Dallas-area florists throughout the day on Thursday. There, they would be collaged into specified arrangements and prepped for delivery by “holiday help,” often illegal, often making only two or three dollars an hour, and working through the night.
The arrangements were all different, depending on the church. There was the Baptist Church in Arlington that made a point of using only flowers that bloomed at Easter time (snowdrops, daffodils) to suggest that, even if those particular varietals weren’t present at Calvary, they may well have been blooming on a sunny hillside in Texas as Christ was crucified half a world away. The Lutherans were all about lilies of different colors, generally yellow (the color of God’s light upon the world) and white (the color that symbolized rebirth and resurrection), but would also include in their order a thin wooden cross to be placed by the altar wrapped in ivy that included tiny purple periwinkles (the color of Lent), a specialty of a florist in Oak Cliff. The Mormons, who had one of their regional temples in Dallas, also used lilies, but only white, and in great, showy abundance. First Presbyterian didn’t use flowers at all, but hung purple-and-gold sashes around the church walls and entry way to mark the occasion. The Methodists used purple, Lenten roses, the Episcopalians tended to go with a lavender pasque for similar reasons, the Pentecostals went with golden forsythia; God’s light again.
The Catholics, well... they had recently undergone a sea change in thought.
Father William “Billy” Costa had been assigned as a deacon to the New Church of the Lamb on Coit Road in North Plano in 1994, following his graduation from the Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Mass where he’d been ordained. Father Billy, as everyone called him, remembered his first Easter service at the New Church, three months into his assignment, as austere.
. ‘Respectful’ was another word for it.
Boring. That was a word, too.
The reason for this was the parish’s priest, Father Warren McClellan, by his own admission, had been very old school.
“People come for the ceremony,” he would admonish the associate priests and deacons of the parish. “If the liturgy is significantly different from what they remember from their childhoods, you will notice an immediate, uncomfortable shift in the pews and will weather a barrage of stern glances from the final hymn until everyone has recessed to the parking lot.”
For Father McClellan, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 83, eliciting a stern glance from a tithe-paying parishioner was the worst sin imaginable. For Father Billy, who it was soon decided would take McClellan’s place, this didn’t bother him near as much, allowing him to take more chances with his congregation, particularly in his attempt to enlarge it.
In Dallas, the largest growing segment of Catholics were Hispanic, a group Father McClellan seemed content to neglect, but one Father Billy was already a part of having had a second-generation Mexican-American father. Though Plano was predominantly a white, upper-middle/lower-upper class suburb, there had been a number of not only Mexican, but also Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan families moving into the area. Father Billy spoke fluent Spanish and was a natural at making the necessary in-roads to the Latino community. Due to his ability to increase the number of his parish’s Sunday worshippers at a time when their numbers were decreasing nationwide, he quickly became a favorite in the diocese.
Admittedly, a handful of not-to-pleased white families had left the Church of the Lamb, choosing to make a thirty-minute drive in to St. Joseph’s in tony Highland Park on the handful of Sundays they actually attended, but Father Billy felt he was doing his part for the Christian mission by integrating his pews with two groups of Catholics who might otherwise never overlap socially.
This integration was never more evident than the Sundays during Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday when more people came to church than on any other day year round, save Christmas. The pews might be three-quarters full most other weeks of the year, but during Lent, especially on Palm Sunday and Easter itself, it was standing room only even with the addition of four rows of folding chairs placed at the back of the pews. For Father Billy, this was easily his favorite time of the year.
“We almost brought two trucks,” grunted the delivery truck driver, sounding like he was only half-joking as he handed an invoice clipped onto a clipboard over to Father Billy who was standing at the church’s side entrance.
“And then what happened?” Father Billy said, watching as the driver’s helper unloaded the last few stands of flowers from the back of a large van.
“Ran out of trucks!” the driver grinned, nodding to a rental company logo on the side of the vehicle. “We had to rent a couple extra ones to make all the orders on time and even then we’ll be going all day. Soon as we drop this stuff off, we’re right back to the warehouse, loading up, then making a run to United Methodist in Duncanville.”
“Well, I appreciate you stopping here first,” said Father Billy, signing the invoice and handing the clipboard back. “Makes my life a lot easier.”
The driver grinned a little, then glanced over to his helper, more than a little conspiratorially. “Can we get a blessing before we head out, Father?”
“Of course,” Father Billy nodded, as if having expected this.
The helper came over and bowed his head alongside the driver, their hands folded in prayer like dutiful school boys. Father Billy made the sign of the cross and began.
“Dear Heavenly Father, please bless these men, your faithful servants...”
After the delivery truck pulled out of the church parking lot, Father Billy suddenly worried that he was setting a bad example in allowing the extortion of blessings to ensure that the Church of the Lamb got the earliest Good Friday delivery. After a moment of worry, he decided to look at it as a sign that God’s word had spread even to delivery drivers and that it was simple good luck as now he had a little extra time to move the couple hundred pounds worth of floral arrangements into the chapel before preparing for the six o’clock mass.
Father Billy enjoyed being the only person in his church and relished the placing of the flowers as a perk of his job rather than a chore. He had hung planters on the aisle-facing ends of the pews earlier that morning where he would now set pots of alyssum that would drape down almost to the floor, as if the church was celebrating a wedding. At the rear of the pews, he would place four of the Easter lily arrangements in high stands that would appear like ushers when the parishioners arrived and would, inevitably, be knocked over at least once or twice spilling water onto the beige carpet, hopefully without staining it.
On top of that, there’d be flowers in the entryway (generally lilies), flowers in the church offices, flowers in the hallways, and flowers in the preschool and kindergarten classrooms that were used for Sunday school and Adult Day Classes on Sundays. More flowers would be placed on either side of the holy water fonts in the entry way and then two large pots beside the entrance to hold open the front when they were yawned open to allow the congregation in for services.
Which left the altar.
The Church of the Lamb had been constructed in the late 1960s, back when Dallas was rapidly expanding into the suburbs due to a tremendous influx of oil and banking money. When it was decided that Plano would become its own parish, the Dallas diocese hired a Los Angeles-based architecture firm to design the church and they went for a fairly modern style, all light brown oak wood, sharp, dramatic angles and the aforementioned beige carpeting. A large, equally-modern woodcarving of Christ on the Cross hung above the altar, but with the same kind of “impressionist” angles employed in the vaulted ceiling used to render the face, arms, body and cross. It had never been a favorite of anyone in the church and it was oft-suggested that it might feel more at home in the church of its designers. Father McClellan, however, had stubbornly defended the piece, believing that the naysayers in the congregation would miss it the moment it came down.
After McClellan’s passing and his own elevation, Father Billy had set out to find a new crucifix. While attending a conference in Leipzig, Father Billy stumbled across one in a centuries-old workshop that the proprietor told him had been carved some time in the late 1800s. The wooden sculpture, cut from a rich, dark walnut, was incredibly life-like, but instead of presenting the Lord’s agony in exquisite detail like the current crucifix, this sculptor of this piece seemed to have a very different goal.
First, there was a look of pain etched on Christ’s face, yes, but more of a willing sacrifice than a man being tortured to death for the Sins of Man. Second, and more importantly, the eyes stared out to the viewer with a look that could only be described as optimism, as if Christ knew exactly what He was doing there, that he would soon be reunited with the Heavenly Father and that you, the person He was connecting with, should know that He was allowing himself to be crucified out of His tremendous compassion for you and all mankind. The eyes were so warm, so determined and so piercing that they allowed any individual even in a group of twenty or more staring up at the crucifix to believe they were seeing the Lord looking back only at them and that he was privy to the very inner-workings of their soul.
Father Billy had been so impressed upon his initial viewing that he’d gone back to retrieve a small coterie of priests from the conference to return with him to the workshop to confirm his belief in the sculpture’s power. To a man, the priests agreed with Father Billy, one suggesting outright that the sculptor had obviously been inspired by the Divine. Father Billy purchased the piece immediately, had it shipped back to Texas in secret and then unveiled it at Easter the following year. The piece had been an instant success with the congregation and it became just another feather in Father Billy’s already plume-heavy cap.
With the sculpture in place over the altar, the very tenor of the Sunday church service was altered. The congregation was warmed by it and, if their eyes chanced up to it during one of Father Billy’s sermons, it seemed to add weight to the priest’s words, as if he couldn’t possibly be saying something untoward as the Lord was right there behind him, granting the priest His mandate.
And what better time than Easter to highlight the dual nature of the holy crucifixion? Father Billy hung a sash in the penitential purple of Lent over Christ’s shoulders and saved the most magnificent floral arrangement to put at His feet to indicate the coming rebirth of spring. This year, he chose a variety of beautiful and exotic floral arrangements to place around the church, but for the altar, Father Billy had always used simple gypsophila — baby’s breath. He felt that, with their hundreds upon hundreds of tiny flowers and thousands of attendant petals, it was the flower that best symbolized the number of souls saved and freed by Christ as they cascading across the altar and away from His feet.
As he walked the heavy buckets of baby’s breath to the altar, Father Billy imagined the effect they would have on the parishioners that coming Sunday. He hoped for a sense of wonder, like being in the theater when something particularly extraordinary happened on stage that couldn’t help but elicit gasps.
“Oh, Father Billy – even more amazing than last year,” at least one parishioner might say.
Father Billy would then smile and nod politely, only later to admit in confession that he liked hearing such things and was guilty of the Sin of Pride.
When he neared the sculpture, he took a knee at the communion rail as was his custom, even when no one was around then climbed the three carpeted steps up to the altar to begin arranging the gypsophila. The florist had outdone themselves this year, giving him an array of what seemed to be only the freshest of cuttings. Father Billy was particularly careful to avoid knocking any of the flowers off the bundled stems as he began arranging them, smaller bunches piled on the edges with bountiful heaps of baby’s breath stacked directly under the crucifix.
It took about twenty minutes to bring up all the flowers he intended to use to the altar and then another half-hour to arrange them into the effect he was going for, a veritable garden of bright white flowers exploding forth like fireworks.
When he’d confessed his prideful ways after the success of last year’s altar display to Father Shawcross, his fellow priest made an interesting suggestion for the future. Once the arrangement was complete, Father Billy reached over with two fingers and tore three flowers off their stems, leaving only jagged green stems behind that couldn’t help but alter the overall effect in a negative way. He also turned a pot on the far left around just so, breaking the perfect symmetry and making it look slightly rushed.
“If a flower’s face should offend thee, cut it off,” Shawcross had said, half-joking as he paraphrased Matthew 5:30 to the prideful priest.
Father Billy thought about this as he pocketed the petals then took a step back, seeing that the briefly achieved perfection now looked slightly flawed, which hurt his pride, the desired effect. He knew it wasn’t the same as a hair shirt or anything else so barbaric, but it gave him the same sting. He regarded the altar one last time before turning to head towards the vestibule behind the sanctuary where he’d disappear to in order to go over the evening service’s short sermon one more time.
And that’s when he heard it, the sound that changed his life forever.
It was something he would spend every day of the next three months trying to properly describe, yet never be satisfied with what he came up with. Was it a hollow,
like he initially thought? Was it akin to a drumbeat? A ticking clock? An echo? A distant harmony? Some metallic reverberation, like water running through old pipes? A ringing? A deliberate melody?