Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Unity and Mission: A Pilgrimage of Accompaniment

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Unity and Mission: A Pilgrimage of Accompaniment

Article excerpt

Via Crucis

On Good Friday afternoon on New Hampshire Avenue in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, thousands of people participate in the annual via crucis, "the way of the cross," a processional reenactment of the final steps of Jesus' carrying his cross along the Via Dolorosa--"the Street of Sorrow," "the Way of Suffering," the "Route of Pain"--winding through the streets of Jerusalem that Jesus walked on his way to his crucifixion on Golgotha. (1) An example of religiosidad popular--popular religious devotion (2)--this dramatization of the "execution walk" of Jesus dates back to the time of St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century, with roots that go back centuries earlier. (3)

At the time of St. Francis, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land was expensive, difficult, and dangerous. For those who could not afford a journey to a distant land, replicas of the sacred sites in the Holy Land were built at various locations in Europe and Russia. (4) Yet, visiting these shrines was not always easy or convenient. St. Francis introduced "the stations of the cross" (5) so that people could reenact the final journey of Christ close to home in their local churches. While the stations were a new devotion, the dramatization of the final steps of Jesus paralleled other types of medieval religious theatre: las posadas, "the inns," which reenact the search of Joseph and Mary for lodging on their journey to Bethlehem; las pastorelas, "the visit of the shepherds" to the new-born Jesus; los tres reyes, the search of "the three kings" for the new-born king. (6) Processions that symbolize the spiritual journeys not only of biblical persons but also of present-day participants are the central feature of these three celebrations, as well as for the via crucis.

In medieval religious drama, many of the principal events in the life of Jesus and the saints were reenacted--sometimes in church, at other times in public places; in fact, many churches in colonial Spanish America included huge outdoor spaces for the celebration of religious pageants. (7) People today are often surprised that such reenactments continue to be staged in many Hispanic communities in the United States. What is the reason for the continued popularity of such practices of medieval piety? One important factor is that the stations--like las posadas, las pastorelas, and los tres reyes--are not merely stage productions to be watched but religious activities in which the spectators also become participants. In other words, religious theatre is both catechetical--a means of instructing people about the great events of Christianity--and "sacramental"--a way of providing people with an opportunity for participating in the history of salvation. (8)

A variation on the individual "stations of the cross" is evident, for example, in "Scenes from the Passion of Christ" by Hans Memling (c. 1433-94), who incorporated a number of events--including the Last Supper, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion, the burial, and the resurrection--into a single painting. (9) As is typical in Renaissance religious art, the donors are depicted in the picture, in this case as praying at opposite sides in the lower corners of the painting; symbolically, the donors, like all Christians, are called to be witnesses of the passion and resurrection of Christ. (10)

Another familiar example of popular reenactments of the last hours of Jesus is through passion plays, which date back at least to the thirteenth century and continue to be performed in many different countries, including the U.S. (11) Yet, as forms of religiosidad popular, passion plays have sometimes been vitiated by serious problems and prejudices. (12) There have been cases where church authorities have reproved performers for their coarse language and excessive cruelty, which occasionally has led to the serious injury and even the death of the Christ-actor. (13) In addition, passion plays have all too often reflected the antisemitic prejudices of both the participants and the populace (14)--prejudices that have been repeatedly repudiated by church authorities in recent decades. …

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