Chris Montgomery

Drama in the church

In the run-up to Easter many people follow a Via Crucis procession, or the Stations of the Cross. Some go to watch choral works based on the events of Holy Week. The events of Jesus’s Passion, death and resurrection are so dramatic that they make great theatre. Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss, Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’s case, the scourging (piiskaminen) of Jesus, Jesus falling three times on the way to Golgotha, Jesus appearing to the disciples in a locked room – it is indeed dramatic stuff. Schoolchildren also get to see the events re-enacted in Easter plays.

Most masses during the church year, whatever the denomination, stick to a familiar pattern, but during Holy Week and Easter the church becomes a place of drama and there are several masses and other occasions that are out of the ordinary. On Palm Sunday parishioners wave palm branches to commemorate how the people greeted Jesus in this way on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. On Maundy Thursday in some churches the priest washes the feet of twelve parishioners to commemorate Jesus washing the feet of the twelve apostles at the last supper. At the end of the mass in some churches thirty coins of silver are thrown to call to mind Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. On Good Friday the altar is covered in black cloth to symbolise the Church being in mourning over Jesus’s death. And at the Easter vigil mass the church is initially dark, before being flooded with candle and light in commemoration of the events of Easter Day in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.
Centuries ago theatricality in the mass went out of fashion, at least in the Protestant countries. The Reformers believed the priest wore too fine robes, the music (monks chanting in beautiful Latin plainsong) was considered to be over-the-top and hindered understanding as the chanting overlapped with the priest’s reading of the liturgical prayers. Incense-filled churches, with walls covered with artwork, were considered to be too decorated. There was even heated debate about the elevation of the communion host (öylätti) – the priest’s raising the host up into the air during the words of institution (asetussanat) was abolished as being too theatrical. There was a shift away from drama to the pure spoken and sung Word, in the local language. Priests also took to wearing less colourful robes.
I think the modern Lutheran Church has achieved a good compromise betwen these extremes. There has been a return of colourful robes and gestures, such as the elevation (occasionally) and the sign of the cross. These changes suit modern tastes and I hope to see more of the same in the future. I would particularly like to see more works of art in churches. The modern parishioner craves more stimuli than just the spoken and sung Word.
Happy Easter to you all!

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