Easter Sunday. Florence. No room for a breath or a breeze. Everyone, from every continent, crammed into the square as for a burning or a hanging. Along streets, where in times of plague, war and famine, robed men raised aloft miracle-working paintings of the Madonna, people stand six deep, not with rose petals in hand, but phones, cameras, the odd early morning ice cream.
Bells. Bells. Bells. Then costumed flag-throwers, drummers, trumpeters process with the mayor and city council. As the flags and music fall away, at last the crowd hears it. The deep rumble, the click-clattering, the bellowing.
Two monumental white oxen, horns and hooves gilded, lumber into sight, pulling a decadent, tottering pagoda built in the 1600s, painted in deep reds, blues, clad with gold.
In time, the pagan beasts stop solemnly at the steps of the cathedral, their garlanded heads bowed, their horns, hooves glistening. Drovers in dun tunics soothe the ceremonial animals, untether them from their load, lead them away bedecked, as to sacrificial slaughter. Men in leather, silk and velvet settle the cart. In the settlers and the square the tension rises: since the pagoda is festooned with fireworks, stillness is essential.
Inside the cathedral, the archbishop redeemed by the Risen Christ, tempered by the Paschal fire, takes the three flints of the Holy Sepulchre, brought home from Jerusalem by a young Florentine in the First Crusade.
At first spark, he takes a mechanical white dove, representing the Holy Spirit, lights the inside with the single flame from the flinted trinity. Then he shoots the dove on a wire, the length of the nave, to the cart outside. The city holds its breath, as the firebird ''flies''. When it hits its mark, the fireworks explode in flame, screeches, whistles and the crowd with gasps and aaahs.
But not today. As you read, the square is abandoned, the cathedral emptied of worshippers, bishops, Middle-Eastern flints, mechanical birds. In Tuscan stalls, the oxen's huge heads are unwreathed, their nine-inch hooves unpainted. Beneath the square, the victims of the Black Death, lined and layered, wonder what has happened.
Just as in Venice, the angel flying from the bell-tower marks the beginning of Lent, in Florence, the exploding pagoda marks its ending. Or, at least, for the last 350 years.
This is a whole new Easter. If you have children in your house, hopefully the Easter Bunny has visited and chocolate and small joys abound. More hopefully, still, you are one of the adults gripped more by how death is managing to sweep though our nursing homes, than by the "Aww" of a bunny being granted a visa it never required, on account of it being a magical creature.
Even in a pandemic, the banality and distraction of what passes for political practice and engagement does not cease to amaze. Two thousand years ago, if Pontius Pilate - handwasher - had been testing choices in a focus group, the same cohort might have approved of "Give us Barabbas", it being pitifully pleasing and popular.
"Barabbas was a brigand." That and "Crucify him! Crucify him!" are the lines I remember most from the Holy Weeks of childhood, where Spy Wednesday felt sly and on Good Friday morning, the house lapped with black tea, was atingle with cinnamon and by dinner time reeked of yellow fish.
The Stations were done in the North Chapel with my grandmother, or Sunday's Well with my father, where there were more hot cross buns in 68 Blarney Street before, and beribboned Easter eggs, each with an ironed pound note in a card, collected from the aunties after.
For many Cork children, Good Friday was the rare weekday when our fathers were home from work. That and the clock-change, with the evenings getting bright, made it feel even more like a bonus day.
Being a musician, I grew up keeping the Holy Week services - Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, Mass on the Sunday. In my late teens, I'd go to St Finbarre's Cathedral to sing Bach's Ich Habe Genug, illicit gin and tonic post-service, tasting vaguely of what I imagined to be myrrh and bitter aloes, fitting for thoughts of Joseph of Arimathaea, shrouding and entombing the Christ, from whom blood and water had flowed.
In Thatcher's London, getting paid for singing at Holy Week services didn't lessen the chill of the chanted Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
At home Catholicism was easy. In London it was difficult, defiant, even exotic. There were bowed heads, mantillas, high ruffled necks, covered wrists, pearl earrings, gold crucifixes; there were prayer books, rosaries, devotional payers, banks of candles lit, ostentatious kissing of the feet of the saviour, saints and virgins. Above all, though, Catholic London was about the ease of the rich. Not new Catholic rich, in the style of solicitors or cardiologists. This was ancient rich, in the style of the Marchmains and Rees-Moggs. Financially resistant, theologically resisting.
In London, on Good Friday, I'd stand looking up the sky at three o'clock waiting for it to darken - it never did, just as the sun never danced on Easter Sunday morning - knowing my father was at home in the garden doing the same, saying under his breath what we always said together. "And the veil of the temple was rent in two."
On this Good Friday, I did it for the two of us, and for the two atheists I have reared, the young fella fresh out of an exam at a Catholic medical institution ringing to ask "Who the hell is Isaac?" I tell him he was the son of Abraham. The reply "And who the hell is he?" Just like there were no black or white foxholes on the battlefield, happily, there are no Biblical questions on the frontline. At least with a capital B. Or maybe not, now that globally, we have the viral betrayal, the washing of hands, the sweating of blood, the keeping vigil and watch, the struggle for breath, the suffocation that ended the lives of the crucified. These are weeks, months, of Gethsemane and Golgotha.
This year, the Passover must have been especially raw, the lockdown dividing generations for the traditional Seder meal. From New York, came the stories of volunteers washing the bodies of coronavirus dead according the Jewish rites and traditions.
This week, the Passover by the angel of death has significance for us all, Egyptian, Israelite and everyone in between. Because, in this time of the virus, we know there are not enough lambs, not enough blood, to make enough Chets, to mark enough lintels, to protect enough firstborns, or for that matter later-borns, in the metropolises of London and New York, or the region of Lombardy, or the peninsula of Italy or the island of Ireland.
The angel who passes over us now is blind to blood and sacrifice, to symbols of protection, to faith and love and mercy.
This Easter stands alone. The Pope giving his blessing Urbi et Orbi, while all the city and half the world is hiding from an invisible enemy. The Italians have a saying anno bisesto, anno funesto: a leap year is a terrible year. Within it, then, we take our comfort where we can. It has been the Tenebrae of Carlo Gesualdo, the Strathclyde Motets by James MacMillan, Bach's Passions of St Matthew and St John. The Goldberg Variations played by god himself, Glenn Gould. But Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus, Psalm 127  "Unless The Lord Build the House" is the music of the moment, voice and viola d'amore in exorable pulse.
For He giveth his beloved sleep. Children, fruit of the womb, are the heritage and gift that come from the Lord.
In these days, safe house, home, sleep preoccupy, as do our children, their gift, life, safety. Our quarantine is our Tenebrae. In the darkness we hope, wait for the light to come.
For believers, for the first time in generations, Christ has not risen in joyful churches and cathedrals, with fires and candles, choirs and organs, trumpets and Exsultets, but in stunned hearts, silent homes.
Last night the bells rang in churches all over Italy. The same bells heard through centuries. It is the listeners who change. Here, there is no stomach for celebration. The believers believe. The rest keep hope, watch.
Yesterday, a new bird migrated to the neighbourhood. A woman across, called from her balcony, its name. I didn't catch it. In the trees, unseen, it sings its soft, four-syllable song. An avian Al-le-lu-ia.