Bringing Ancient Wisdom Into the Streets
Yesterday as my friend and colleague Alex Bausch and I were driving through Lynn, we came across an astonishing sight on the Lynn Commons – more than 100 men dressed in the full attire of Roman soldiers – tunics, shields, spears, and flowing red capes. Intrigued, we stopped. It turned out that we had arrived at the beginning of a massive outdoor celebration of the Stations of the Cross. The Stations of the Cross is an ancient Christian practice in which a congregation symbolically re-enacts the twelve critical events of Good Friday, including the trial, crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus of Nazareth.
The hardy members of St. Joseph’s congregation in Lynn have been doing this every year for a decade. They have invested an enormous amount of time and resources into the event. They had created elaborate costumes for every character, including the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate; the chief priest of the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas, and all the other main characters.
I learned that most of the members of the congregation – and thus the actors -- were from Central America, primarily from Guatemala, many of them of indigenous origin. After they had concluded the confrontation between Jesus and the leaders who decided his fate, they marched through the streets of Lynn, with the man playing Jesus dragging a full sized wooden cross. As he limped and stumbled on the pavement, the soldiers pretended to flog him. Scores of followers followed, shouting “Crucificarlo”! “Crucify him!” At the head of the procession moved a Lynn police car with its blue lights flashing. Rain began to fall lightly and then intensified. As many came out to watch, others peered from the windows of office buildings.
I found myself deeply moved by the power and dignity of this communal witness. I imagine that some of these church members have low-paying, menial jobs. Others may be undocumented. I am sure they face challenges finding work, gaining decent housing, raising and protecting their children, and coping with the contempt that America so often showers on low-income people of color. With this public demonstration, however, they had come together as a community to affirm their pride, their faith, and their culture. They were also there to affirm the heart of the Christian story – that service to others brings freedom, that love is stronger than death, and that faith must always be expressed through love, mercy, and justice.
Last night was also the first night of Passover, another vivid and beautiful tradition, one that goes to the heart of the Jewish faith. At the Passover Seder meal, the family members and guests gather around a decorated table. Over the course of several hours they recall – with words, songs, and symbolic foods – the night that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt rose up and fled the land of their captivity. Every recitation, every reading, every bit of food is designed to remind the participants of the importance of that liberation – and of the importance of defending freedom and standing up for justice. The tradition of asking the youngest child to read the ritual questions – among them, “why is this night different from all other nights? – is designed to teach youth that these are values that lie at the heart of our humanity.
In contemporary politics, Americans fight constantly about the meaning and nature of freedom. For many years, conservatives have labored to monopolize words like “liberty” and “freedom” by infusing them with narrow meaning. Freedom is money and markets. Freedom is owning assault weapons. Progressives, on the other, talk about freedom from political and economic oppression.
Passover and Easter do not overlap on the calendar very often, but on this special weekend the two powerful religious traditions offered much deeper understandings of human liberty. No matter what our religious backgrounds might be, we are right to pause and consider them. Such reminders can help us lift our eyes above the frustrations and turbulence of daily life to consider what our deepest values truly are. And this, in turn, will help us become the people – and the nation – that we truly want to be.