"How's this: 'Loving hands have made for you, Italian-style tiramisu?'"
"That's brilliant!" I said. "Perfect. It even rhymes!" Over the years, I have found that most of a priest's work boils down to encouraging people.
We were devising an arresting advertising slogan for the tiramisu we were making to sell at the "Peter and the Wolf" performance Saturday evening. We were also separating eggs in groups of twelve, beating the whites until they were stiff amd white and then beating the yolks with sugar, creaming tub after tub of mascarpone cheese and dipping countless ladyfingers into strong black coffee and combining it all to layer into individual serving cups. Of course, what the students were really doing was avoiding studying. This is always a powerful motivator; we logged about a hundred individual tiramisu before calling it quits.
My skills are not honed to the Italian market quite yet, it seems: the tiramisu didn't sell at all well at the first performance. Too cold! Italian buildings are chilly in the winter, with their high ceilings and stone walls and floors, and tiramisu is less irresistable under those circumstances than it is on a hot and sunny Tuscan afternoon.
"We need something hot," somebody said, five minutes before showtime. "I know," I said, "Hot English Punch!" What's that, somebody asked, but I was already down the stairs. "Or maybe Hot Russian Punch," I called back, "since it's 'Peter and the Wolf.' Prokofieff, you know." Half a bottle of wine, a few oranges, some cognac-y stuff I found in the cupboard and a few cloves later, we had a steaming concoction with an uncertain national origin but an intoxicating smell. It worked: the adults bought glass after glass, and kept their children quiet with tiramisu.
"Peter" is going well. All the animals in the story wear wonderful masks, and the wolf has scared several toddlers each night as he comes down the aisle, even though he is one of the shorter children, much smaller than the duck he is called upon to swallow whole. The grandfather is diminuitive, too, and deceptively innocent-looking, which is why he could beat three American college students in succession at chess during the opening night party. The narration is in English and Italian, and so is the audience.
I asked the vestry how they thought folks would feel about leaving the set up for Sunday's service and celebrating the Eucharist in the midst of it -- we did this all the time at St. Clement's back in New York, but that didn't mean such a thing would fly here in the art history capital of the world. We ended up doing so, and so "Peter and the Wolf" found its way into the sermon: a boy who can do what the powerful people in his world cannot do. Children's stories are full of this: children being powerful, children saving the day, children outwitting adults, children getting justice done. Storytelling has always been like this, an inversion of the world's power arrangements.
We hear in scripture that people were surprised and even offended at the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. If they'd listened to their storytellers, though, they might not have been so shocked. The artists tell us first, sometimes, long before the theologians or the politicians get wind of anything.