- Imagine yourself in an emerging ministry in the tourist destination of the middle fourth century.
- Now imagine that all these tourists are overrunning all the sacred sites around your church, and are looting valuable artifacts to take home as souvenirs.
- Now imagine that most of these tourists want not just a vacation, but the most profound religious experience.
- Finally, think about having a bizillion professional religious types around, who, like most professional religious types, are not overly sensitive to the complex needs of people who aren't going to be permanent parts of their communities.
Pilgrimage and the ancient near east
Pilgrimage to sacred places has played an important role in the societies of Mediterranean basin for thousands of years. The best known—and still practiced—of these journeys in the Hajj, the Islamic journey to Mecca and Medina which re-enacts the jihad of the Prophet Mohamed, but by the middle of the fourth century, Christians were engaging in a similar travel to Jerusalem, and as it became relatively unsafe to travel across the Mediterranean, first Rome, then Santiago de Compostela and then Canterbury and other more local destinations emerged. Pilgrimages, then as now, were an amalgam of exploration, tourism and entertainment, and search for religious fulfillment, and for any pilgrim on any day the relationship of these components varied (along with the inevitable desire to rest one’s weary feet). The Jerusalem pilgrimage was also influenced by the Constantinian growth of the eastern empire. The emperor’s mother was involved in the “discovery” of many of the sites (such as the place of crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus), and to be baptized in Jerusalem was not just a sign of spiritual devotion, but (and maybe more importantly) a sign of imperial social status.
Let’s go to the theater
To make sense of the Jerusalem church’s brilliant move in creating a structure to focus tourism as a religious force, we also need to look at what seemed for most preachers to be the greatest competitor to involvement as an active church member: the theater. Theater in the late empire is not well documented; there are almost no extant plays, and if those that remain are any indication of the quality, we probably aren’t missing very much. Theater was not Antigone or Oedipus; it wasn’t Taming of the Shrew or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof either.
It was spectacle.
Think of a cross between “Ziegfield Follies meets Washington at Valley Forge” mixed with equal parts of Survivor, American Idol, and The Gong Show, and, if we are to believe most of the third- and fourth-century preachers and their contemporary pagan philosophers, a definite splash of a 1960’s Times Square peep show. Not a pretty sight, but it seems to have been a major part of the entertainment matrix. Re-enacting historical or mythic events seems to have formed the main plot line, so maybe we should think of the History Channel as well.
Make the circus a circuit
Given that cultural situation, what’s a bishop in Jerusalem to do? Spectacle, but put everyone “on stage.” Give the monks and nuns a ministry of education and hospitality (and stagehands for the Jesus show). And keep everybody busy. Idle hands will do the devil’s work—even in Jerusalem. Take the narratives of Jesus’ passion and on top of the normal preparation for baptism, schedule activities during the weeks before Easter to challenge the endurance of the most committed, and put them at places referenced in the scriptural narrative. Don’t make people stand in line; that will make them bored and restless (just ask any four-year-old waiting to get into the Toy Story Mania! ride). Instead make a procession with them. Start walking, then start singing, get some monks to swing fancy figure-eights with thuribles, add some banners, and you don’t have a queue, you have a parade! March people out to Bethany on Saturday (that will keep them occupied for about four hours, not including the church service), up to the summit of the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday (and back down), while singing psalms and waving branches, and from Thursday in Holy Week, don’t let them stop until they fall asleep on their feet. It worked marvelously, and of course, the emotional intensity mixed with exhaustion probably made for more intense religious experiences for many.
But at the core of this activity was spectacle: the re-enactment of the historical events of Jesus’ life, particularly the “last week.” This was theater on such a grand scale that it could finally begin to supplant the local (and secular) spectacles. St. Cyril of Jerusalem was not just a great teacher and bishop; he was one of the great impresarios of all time.
In my next post, I’ll look in more detail at his “playbook” as well as notes of the entertainment and religion correspondent from the Times of Southern Spain, Egeria.