Liturgy as theatre in the Christian faith

Last Wednesday afternoon, a large procession of Christian worshipers made its way down the main street of New Amsterdam, Berbice. In the lead was an open-back vehicle on which was an altar and a microphone from which a member of the clergy could address both the public and his congregation. As the vehicle moved slowly along the street, it was followed by one member of the church bearing a large cross behind whom was a large entourage of persons who walked along in dramatic fashion.

That was, most likely, a dramatization of the highly theatrical characteristics of Good Friday, which precedes Easter on the Christian calendar. An increasing number of churches have been publicly dramatizing the biblical events said to have occurred on this day, but they usually do it on the day itself. It shows how religion turns to theatre for its forms of worship as well as public exhibitions of its faith.

Easter is one of the largest and most important religious festivals on the Christian calendar.  It falls well behind Christmas in grandeur, reach, impact and popularity but is considered the more important of the two to the religion because it celebrates the rising of Jesus Christ following His ultimate sacrifice, which is at the very centre of the Christian faith.

Religious festivals share certain characteristics. They make much use of literature, myth, ritual, symbols, theatre and dramatisation, sometimes spectacle. Many of them have public outreach and demonstrations of beliefs and principles. Although their primary purpose is worship, focusing on sacred ritual, they almost always transcend that, especially because of the public manifestation, to become other things. Some of them are calendar festivals because of their origins/roots. Easter, for example, has grown into a traditional festival; it is also cultural and popular.

However, the date and timing of Easter is not fixed every year the way Christmas is at December 25. Easter comes after the 40-day period of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Good Friday, an important public manifestation of the sacred ritual and belief. During Lent, Christians enter into a period of abstinence and fasting in deference to the scriptures because they are virtually dramatising the 40 days spent by Jesus fasting and praying in the wilderness in preparation for his crucifixion.

Note that this is not only a public manifestation of belief, but an application of drama; a sign of the outreach of the festival and one of the ways in which it functions as popular. This is so since a large number of non-Christians tend to observe the Lenten ritual of abstinence and penance as a popular custom without believing or even having much knowledge of the religious significance.

This dramatisation of belief also extends into certain customs around Good Friday. Cultural change has tempered this considerably, but it has been widely practiced that there is fasting on the day of the crucifixion. If not fasting, there is abstinence from meat and alcohol. Popular customs include no cooking, places of public entertainment remain closed, practices common even among non-Christians.

Among these customs is the eating of hot cross buns. They are a specific Good Friday offering.  This is a manifestation of the religious belief although it involves the entire population, most of whom accord it no religious significance. But this itself is further dramatisation. Traditionally, the buns each have a cross superimposed on top. And even those that might not have that mark are still called cross buns.  This is an unofficial symbol of the crucifix – the hallmark emblem of the Christian religion as a whole. Moreover, these are eaten on Good Friday and would have disappeared by the Easter weekend for two reasons: one – they might well be a token symbol of the crucifixion; and two – they are available as food because no meat is (supposed to be) eaten on Good Friday. Yet again, the festival dramatises its faith through a popular custom and public outreach.

Even the cross itself is a symbol and a metaphor for sacrifice, which is at the core of Christian belief. Because of the story of the crucifixion, the cross becomes the representative trademark and immediate mark of identity. Amazingly, it dramatises the whole story of the Christ and his life and purpose on earth.

This makes this period the most dramatic of the Christian festivals. It commonly resorts to the theatrical as seen in the recent street procession in New Amsterdam, and in the Roman Catholic Church such street drama is standard as it is known to dramatise the journey to Calvary and other symbolic representations in public shows. What is more, it was the Roman Catholic Church that resurrected theatre in the western world after the ‘Dark Ages’ of mediaeval times.

Because so many members of the population were illiterate and because they could not read the Bible anyway, the priests turned to drama to educate them about the Bible and the religion in the late Middle Ages. Readings from the Bible evolved into dramatic pieces written in Latin known as liturgies or liturgical drama. The clergy wrote short dramas that grew and began performances inside the church. These included different types including Quem quaeritis, playlets called Quo Vadis, miracle plays, nativity plays and passion plays.

These were dramatisations of stories from the scriptures and about the work and miracles of Jesus. The masses were instructed through these. Later, others such as shepherds’ plays and mystery plays developed. Of particular interest were the passion plays which were dramas telling the story of the crucifixion.

It is significant that after the rise of the Christian church and the decline of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, western theatre collapsed. The Roman Catholics were instrumental in this extinction since they disapproved of what they saw as lascivious and corrupting. Great early theologian St Augustine rejoiced that this immoral influence was gone.

The Dark Ages of mediaeval times then saw the loss of drama until around the 10th Century AD, when the same Roman Catholic Church saw the need for drama and ignited the liturgies in Latin. The various passion plays developed in Britain and around Europe and continued after various curtailments until modern times. This rebirth of western drama gradually outgrew the church and moved out into the towns where it was taken over by guilds. Tradesmen formed travelling groups which used pageant wagons to travel around the towns performing. These continued till well into the 15th and 16th centuries.

Guyana is famous for kite flying at Easter, which is a popular secular past-time. Yet, although not confirmed or documented, it is linked to a symbol of and celebration of the risen Christ. This is another way in which the festival enjoys popular outreach and employs dramatisation and symbolism, which are all tied to ways in which sacred belief is manifested in popular custom.  The popular culture has long made the maximum use of Easter Monday as a highly festive day – at the heights of what is very much a popular festival.

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