“WHEN is science ever satisfied?” Thus spake an exasperated Fr Carlos Martins, as he was questioned about the authenticity of his impressive miscellany of relics. Fr Martins is an officially sanctioned relic authenticator, and takes his collection on tours of North America. He sees his mission as rescuing relics from the venal, secular marketplace.
But his description of how relics work elegantly side-steps the question to which everyone wants the answer: was this splinter a part of the True Cross, or this thread part of the very kerchief that wiped the brow of our Lord? Objects do not, Fr Martins says, partake themselves of the grace from above, but are conduits through which that power might flow.
All of which left a sceptical Jolyon Jenkins, in Out of the Ordinary (Radio 4, Monday of last week), wondering whether that rendered meaningless the hierarchy of relics which determines their value, spiritual and monetary. This would not bother the eBay entrepreneur who is employing the holy homoeopathy that confers on any object the status of third-class relic, merely by coming into contact with a relic of the first or second rank, in order to fund a cat shelter. Or at least, that is how we were introduced to the Liverpudlian Fr Anthony.
We heard nothing more of the cat shelter, and such moments of unnecessary waspishness undermine the persona that Jenkins confects in these programmes: of a deadpan courtesy, accompanied by the faintest twinkle in the eye which only we — his knowing audience — can appreciate. And, while this approach might serve as a means of scrutinising the authenticity of venerated relics, it is not sufficiently robust to manage encounters with people whose faith is unquestionably authentic.
Holy Week offers to ambitious dramatists the ultimate temptation. Not for nothing is it called “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. But the snares and pitfalls are manifold, and the spectre of Monty Python is omnipresent.
In Patient 13 (released this week on the podcast Things Unseen), Bob Ayres employs a novel framing device to tell the Passion narrative: Judas has woken up in a 20th-century hospital and, in a bewildered state, he attempts to piece together his memories. As it turns out, this dramatic conceit has implications only at the end of the play, and, in the main, this is a solidly constructed retelling of the story.
If you like your Passion to be all “thees” and “thous”, then Patient 13 is not for you. The disciples are all “mate”, and there is at least one ill-judged “Pete”. We have become habituated to Galileans with regional accents, but it felt particularly cruel to give the High Priest an RP accent so well-ironed that he sounded like a Hollywood super-villain.
Most challenging, however, was the psychological back story provided to explain Judas’s betrayal. In Ayres’s version, it was all as the result of jealous love for Mary of Bethany; and the crunch comes when Mary wastes on Jesus the expensive perfume that Judas bought for her as a present. In the imperishable words of Mary of Bethany: “Man . . . you’re so messed up.”