Liturgical Re-enactment

Palm Sunday Year C; Luke 23:1-49

In the fall of 2013, I was midway through my first semester of seminary in Northern Virginia. I hadn’t gotten off campus much, but I was determined to change that. Northern Virginia is known for its stunning vistas and rich history, and I was ready to start soaking them up. And so, early one September morning, I trekked out to Manassas, the site of not one but two important Civil War battles. But it was no ordinary day. Three times a year, Virginia Seminary observes a Quiet Day, in which students, staff and faculty are encouraged not to engage in any conversation. Classes and meetings are cancelled, and even email is limited. The campus gets eerily silent. I wasn’t sure whether or not I bought into the value of imposed silence, but I had decided not to knock it ’til I tried it. I knew the temptation to talk would be strong on campus, so off to Manassas I went.

The parking lot at the national park was pretty packed, but when I entered the visitor’s center, it was just me and the sweet young woman behind the front desk. She informed me that a film had just started in the theater, so I sneaked into the pitch black room and quickly sat down on the back row. When the film ended and the lights came on, I was shocked to discover that the room was full of people - all in matching red baseball caps. I kept my seat as they filed out, then followed them outside as they gathered around a person who seemed to be their tour guide. I tried to give them a wide birth as I headed out towards the field, but no luck. An older woman stopped me and asked if I was alone.

Now, I had not yet considered what I would do if pressed to talk on this Quiet Day. Would I ignore the practice for the sake of hospitality and have a regular conversation? Would I tell whoever spoke to me, as politely as possible, that I had taken a vow of silence for the day? Would I just ignore everyone?

In the brief moments when these panicked thoughts ran through my head, Jesus entered the heart of the woman. A look of understanding came over her face and she said to me, “you can’t talk. That’s okay, just come with us.” She led me back to her group, and that is how I ended up reenacting the battle of 1st Manassas, fake gun and all, in complete silence.

I think about that day all the time. I don’t know why God brought that woman into my life, and I still can’t believe I participated in a Civil War reenactment. I had never done so before and I have not since. Civil War reenactment culture in America is complicated, rife with social and political implications. Critics say that the practice romanticizes our brutal past with no regard for its impact. But the desire to relive such a painful moment in our history is not unfamiliar to us. Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Penn Warren, had much to say about America’s passion for the Civil War. In the early 20th century he wrote “a high proportion of our population was not even in this country when the War was being fought. Not that this disqualifies the grandson from experiencing to the full the imaginative appeal of the Civil War. To experience this appeal may be, in fact, the very ritual of being American.”

Warren’s words speak to me and probably to the liturgy-loving side of many Episcopalians. To observe and commemorate the tumultuous events of Christ’s last week on earth, his passionate death and glorious resurrection, even while living into that resurrection, is the very ritual of being Christian. But, when I process around the church in my vestments waving a palm branch, I admit I feel as conspicuous, if not more so, than I did in my battle reenactment. So I couldn’t help but wonder, what is the difference between what living historians do on old battlefields, and what we do on Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week? Are we just re-enactors, liturgically romanticizing the death of our savior?

With these questions in mind, and in the spirit of living history, I did a little research about Palm Sunday. It has a rich, if slightly confusing story. As it turns out, the Liturgy of the Palms and the reading of the Passion gospel were once separate Sunday occasions, but have since been combined in our Lectionary. Moreover, the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord were first observed liturgically in a time when people gathered for worship not just on Sundays but several times a week. Back then, the Passion narrative from each of the four Gospels was read throughout the week leading up to Easter. Today, we cycle through Matthew, Mark and Luke every three years, and we read John’s account annually on Good Friday. What strikes me about this complex path to our present-day practice is that the need to hear this story, over and over again, in all its variations, has not eased over time. If anything, our zeal for the story has grown.

Unlike a Civil War re-enactor, who may be torn between her 21st century life and the life she imagines for herself in that time gone by, we know that the Passion of our Lord is timeless, that he walks out of that tomb and into our lives every single day. This story is not just history, it’s alive and well. When we’re feeling particularly pious during Holy Week, we might look down haughtily at the Jews in Jerusalem who sang and praised and hooted and hollered when Jesus entered the city, only to scatter in fear and doubt a few days later. But 2000 years later, even knowing what happened three days after the crucifixion, we still scatter when times get tough.

When we are angry or ashamed or frightened, and God doesn’t fix it the way we want him to, we, too, turn our backs on God and on our faith. We are the people of Jerusalem who herald Christ’s triumphant entry into our lives. We are the disciples who panic at the first sign of trouble and run the opposite direction. We are the oil-bearing women, amazed at an empty tomb. While Christ himself will never reenter that tomb, we, his followers, need to be pulled from it all the time. We need redemption with just about every breath we take, so really, it’s a wonder we only retell this story once a year.

If you have never participated in a Civil War reenactment, I truly do recommend it, though maybe not in complete silence. But I also highly recommend participating in as many of our Holy Week liturgies as you can. Not because it’s fun and educational to relive dramatic events from 1st century Palestine, but because the story we’re telling this week is our story. It’s the story of our life with Christ in all its many facets: joy and fear and doubt and redemption. And telling it together is the very ritual of being Christian. Amen.

Hannah Hooker