Thursday, April 02, 2009

Faith Works 4-4-09
Jeff Gill

Taking a Walk Around the Block, or a Bit Farther

‘Tis the season . . . for processions.

Coming into Holy Week for Christian observance of the last earthly week of Jesus’ life, we’ve got a number of special occasions on the worship calendar, what some churches call “liturgy.”

Liturgy translates, roughly, as “the work of the people,” meaning the call and response of certain set prayers and actions needs the active involvement of the people in the pews. Liturgy is not – contrary to many misconceptions – just the script for the ordained clergy, but the work all of God’s people do together.

In the sanctuary, the worship space, with a robed and vested minister leading from behind the pulpit, it can be easy to confuse liturgy at any season, let alone through Easter season, with the work of what’s going on up front.

Which is where religious processions come in, where they have for millennia been a crucial part of acknowledging what “leitourgia” is really about.

Palm Sunday in many traditions has the congregation process into the building with their palms, echoing the impromptu parade into Jerusalem behind Jesus on the prophetic white donkey, the crowds acclaiming him as the coming king, stripping the palm trees for branches to lay down on the road so the dust would not obscure the view.

Mostly this has turned into the kids marching briskly up and down the aisles with their eco-palms waving (sustainably) and singing suitable acclamation to King Jesus. Many Catholic churches still have at least the officiants march in from outside, or at least from the narthex (entry room from door to worship space).

In fact, through Lent these last few weeks, many Catholic churches have a weekly Stations of the Cross procession within the sanctuary, either on Fridays or after a parish retreat or dinner on another evening. Large numbers of worshipers skip the sitting and work their way around the walls of the worship space, praying at panels recalling crucial events from the original Good Friday.

Francis of Assisi began this custom when the original Stations of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, became inaccessible to Christian pilgrims after the Moslem takeover of the Holy Land. That journey, following the steps of Jesus himself from his trial to crucifixion and burial, became a set of 13 stations (or in some places today, 14, adding the Resurrection) around the inside of the church.

There are locations on the grounds of churches, or at the Sts. Peter and Paul Retreat Center (former PIME Seminary), where outdoor Stations of the Cross are walked.

In some locations, a Good Friday “Cross Walk” is an ecumenical way to recall those steps of Jesus, bringing more traditionally ordered churches together with less formal approaches to worship in an outdoor procession, usually trying to end atop a hill, echoing Jesus’ carrying of his cross up Calvary, or “Golgotha,” Aramaic for “Place of the Skull.”

Some towns hold theirs on the grounds of a church, and many do so in a cemetery, especially if there’s a hill for the closing portions recalling the crucifixion itself.

In Granville, the Good Friday Crosswalk starts at 11:00 am at the parking lot of St. Edward’s Catholic Church, and winds through town and up the hill to the front of Denison University’s Swasey Chapel.

For some of the observant in New Mexico and the Philippines, there is a fellowship called “Los Penitentes,” whose penitential observance takes “the work of the people” to a whole new level, with members of these fraternities actually re-enacting the scourging, crossbearing, and crucifixion itself, using the actual equipment in modified form as an act of devotion.

Yes, that means sometimes people actually not only bleed, but are nailed up onto a cross. They’re brought down pretty quickly, and those who choose to endure this tangible symbolism are considered particularly devout, but the official church does not approve of or participate in these re-creations.

Some of you might prefer being nailed to a cross to staying up until dawn, which in Eastern Orthodox Churches is a central element of the Easter Vigil. Some Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican/Episcopal churches have an Easter Vigil from Saturday night into Easter Sunday morning, where a flame is supposed to enter the building from without, and in some areas a midnight bonfire is part of the tradition (along with various strategies for staying warm).

But few keep a procession outside of the church as central as Orthodox churches do, with one element of the service requiring the officiants and entire congregation to not only walk out the church door, but to walk around the building three times before re-entering to celebrate the lighting of the Holy Fire.

Among Protestant Christians, the last vestige of these customs is in the sunrise service, where a pre-dawn awakening for the worship leaders often leads them and the worshipers to an outdoor service as the sun rises, as Lakewood area churches hold on Easter morning at Dawes Arboretum.

Then there’s the procession traditions behind Rogation Days and Ember Days. What are those? I’ll save that for after Easter, but they involve . . . more processions! A walk, a parade outside by young and old, clergy and laity together, is not an exception to “liturgy,” but maybe the very best embodiment of it!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about a religious procession from your tradition at, or on Twitter at Knapsack.

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