Click here for pictures of the Via Crucis:
Every year on Good Friday, the Church of the Messiah organizes a Via Crucis procession through downtown Santa Ana. Other neighboring churches participate, as do local service organizations such as Isaiah House. The procession follows the Latin tradition of carrying a large wooden cross through public places with prayers and songs. Since the neighborhood is largely Hispanic (as is the Messiah congregation), this procession is bilingual in English and Spanish, with popular hymns mostly in Spanish to guitar accompaniment.
La Iglesia en marcha está.
A un mundo nuevo vamos ya
donde reinará el amor,
donde reinará la paz.
The Via Crucis follows the 14 Stations of the Cross, commemorating 14 stages in the passion and death of Jesus. Each of these moments is correlated with a place of suffering, struggle, or hope for the people of the city. For example, the first Station, at which Jesus is condemned to death by Pontius Pilate, is dedicated to the prisoners in the county jail a few blocks away. Many of the persons in the crowd have relatives in jail or prison, or have themselves had troubles with the law. Today, the Santa Ana Police is escorting our procession on motorcycle, stopping traffic where needed for the crowd to cross streets safely.
At each Station there is a brief invocation of Christ the Redeemer, followed by a passage of scripture and a prayer matched to the setting (clinic, employment workshop, government offices), after which a member of the community offers a personal prayer in their native language. The third Station, where Jesus falls for the first time, takes place in front of a medical clinic serving the community. There is a long prayer in Spanish on the struggles of those without health insurance. Many of the Spanish-speaking participants are uninsured.
Other Stations focus on the problems of addiction, on the loss of young people to gangs and gang violence, on unemployment. There is a kind of climax near the end, at the door of a neighborhood church, where the person carrying the cross, with the priest and the designated reader, climb a steep set of stairs to a vantage point from which they look out over the gathered crowd (Picture 2). Most of the other Stations are right at street level: inside a storefront doorway (with a homeless person curled up asleep), a bus stop, a street corner, a parking lot, a small green space (Picture 3).
In many years, when Easter comes earlier in the Spring, the Via Crucis takes place mostly in darkness, and often in wet or cold weather. This year Easter is late, and it is a clear bright evening. The crowd is big, with people joining the procession as it goes along. For many of the downtown people, it is a flashback from their childhoods in rural Mexico, and the songs are familiar to them. It is interesting to see that young men are eager to participate, and practically elbow each other for a turn carrying the cross. These are the kind of young men you might see on other days hanging out idly on street corners, and cross the street to avoid them. This evening, there is a kind of elation in their faces.
The Via Crucis at Messiah was started 30 years ago by Rector Brad Karelius. It is only one of many community initiatives he has spearheaded; the most prominent is Hands Together, an early childhood education center for the working poor, currently serving more than 100 children. Father Brad will retire in October, and this is his last Via Crucis as Rector.
At the 12th Station, two before the end, Jesus dies on the cross. The reader is an eloquent young priest from a neighboring parish. His prayer is long and passionate, in effect a compressed sermon on the death of Jesus. He is followed by two more ordinary people, one speaking English, the other Spanish, with modest prayers close to their personal concerns and views of the world. The procession concludes in the Messiah patio, in front of a larger-than-life crucifixion display with three figures, brightly colored in an indigenous Mesoamerican style. There is a final round of songs, and we disperse.
What questions are raised by all of this? I think it comes down to behavior. How can ordinary people walk through the streets of a modern, secular city carrying a large wooden cross in broad daylight? We accept that people may engage in ritual behavior behind closed doors, among others of their “persuasion.” Here the behavior goes beyond the limits of mere ritual to some kind of outlandish exhibitionism, at the heart of public and civic space. What is in the minds of people who do this, and what is the response of those around them who witness it and, in some cases and to varying degrees, spontaneously participate?
Probably it is not as strange as it seems. Such things are unusual in our culture, but not in deep violation of psychological or sociological norms. On the contrary, it seems that people welcome this event and intuitively grasp its meaning. In more traditional cultures, like Latin America or many places in Catholic Europe, processions of this kind are not seen as strange, but the meaning is the same. The pervasive suffering and struggle of the world is brought out of its concealment and made visible. It is not only made visible, as in a dramatic performance, but brought down to street level and opened up to empathetic participation by anyone who so desires. The pain of the world is brought out of concealment and people are brought out of indifference, in a conjuction rich with affective and cognitive value. It is not abstract or merely symbolic: the rhythm of observances turns us to face the real, concrete struggles of the people, in the places where they take place, often in the company of those who engage in them.
Perhaps the reason that our mainstream religious institutions have such tenuous purchase in the modern world is that it is all so discreet, private, and personal.
We need to be doing it in the street. Anthems for a truly “emergent” church that actually emerges from its sanctuaries and basements and coffee houses: “Why don’t we do it in the road” (Beatles); or, “Taking it to the Streets” (the Episcopal Diocese of L.A. has used this in its Gay Pride contingent for more years than I care to remember, but anyway…).
Think of the women of Côte d’Ivoire who protested against the regime of Laurent Gbagbo, carrying leaves, some dressed in black or naked (a fearsome curse against the target of their protest).
At a March 3, 2011, demonstration by 15,000 women, 6 were shot to death by government troops, many others wounded.
[Warning: graphic video footage of the protest and killings.]
Shortly afterward, these courageous women were back on the streets in even greater numbers.
Are we ready to come out, go public, take our clothes off, carry a cross, wave branches, expose ourselves in some way? Where are we hiding the nakedness that is our first divine gift?