Liturgical Processions, Political Theology, and Contemporary Christian Witness

Liturgical processions occur frequently in the Byzantine rite. For most participants, the services of Holy Week feature processions involving the epitaphios (burial shroud) of Christ. Pascha (Easter) features the most popular procession, as the people bear lighted candles and process around the Church outdoors in anticipation of the Markan Gospel announcing Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The faithful also process around the Church on Palm Sunday and on other appointed feasts.

In the Slavic tradition, many parishes commemorate their patronal feast days with processions that bring the faithful outdoors. The processions tend to be simple, usually involving the singing of an appointed hymn for the occasion, with stational stops at various corners of the Church for prayers and the reading of the Gospel. The presider blesses everyone with holy water as they gather before the entrance to return to the Church, singing the appointed hymn upon entering again. The people tend to enjoy these processions, embracing the opportunity to walk and sing together, and to bring the Church’s witness of faith into the public sphere.

One of my favorite memories of processions occurred at the Orthodox Church of St. Matthew in Columbia, Maryland. The church building is adjacent to a larger complex of buildings consisting of offices, restaurants, and a grocery store. Our Holy Week processions took us through the parking lot, literally into the midst of the public sphere.

Processions have always had a functional purpose. The Byzantine Vigil includes a mini-procession, lite (or litiya), hymns and prayers intoned at the entrance of the Church prior to the blessing of wheat, wine, oil, and baked bread. This procession is a vestige of the monastic practice of intoning prayers at the monastery bakery. In ancient urban stational liturgy, processions would stop at specific points for prayers and supplications, such as the Forum in Constantinople. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Great Entrance is a vestige of a functional liturgical procession, as the deacons would bring the bread and wine selected for the offering into the Great Church, albeit with the ostentatious ceremony typical of the seat of the Church in the empire’s capital.

Many public processions of late antiquity and the medieval period involved the participation of the local urban (or rural) population. Processions brought together rich and poor, pious and curious, young and old. In his classical work on the Cult of the Saints, Peter Brown remarked that the processions pertaining to the installation of saintly relics signified divine favor on the local populace. The Church frequently convoked public, urban processions as act of repentance, to beseech God for forgiveness, especially in the wake of a military defeat, drought, and natural disaster (such as earthquakes in Constantinople).  

An urban, public procession was essentially a religious carnival. Many people were there, but not all of them started at the beginning and stayed through the end. Some people came just for a glance, for the highlighted moment, and this remains in effect today at the beginning of Paschal Matins, when a large portion of the people disappears after the drama of the Gospel reading and the singing of the Paschal hymn.

In recent years, the feast of the Baptism of Rus’ (July 27-28) has drawn enormous crowds in Kyiv, Ukraine. The Orthodox Churches in Ukraine have organized enormous public processions “of the cross.” These processions bear many of the characteristics mentioned above. They are stational, contain prayers, hymns, and the intonation of the Gospel, and are public demonstrations of the faith. In the current religious situation, however, these processions have become instances of political theology. The two Churches organizing the processions, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) essentially compete for prestige among the people on the basis of the success of their processions.

For example, the UOC-MP claims that 300,000 faithful participated in the processions, an incredibly spurious claim since they reported that 250,000 participated last year. Media representatives have also used the occasion to post photos of bishops and clergy from other Orthodox Churches accompanying them on the procession as evidence of their rejection of the OCU’s legitimacy. Both Churches posted photos of well-known politicians marching alongside the leading bishops on each side. Former president Petro Poroshenko accompanied Metropolitan Epifaniy of the OCU, and opposition leaders Vadim Novinskiy and Yurii Boko walked in step with Metropolitan Onufy of the UOC-MP.

Ukrainian religious analyst Tetiana Derkatch notes the ridiculous exaggeration of the numbers. After indicating that the primary station of each procession is Volodymyrs’ka Hilka, Derkatch notes that 300,000 people is the population of large city (e.g. Kherson), and that everyone knows that Voldymyrs’ka Hilka cannot accommodate a large crowd. Her report alludes to official numbers – the local authorities estimated that 30,000 people participated in the UOC-MP procession, and 15,000 in the OCU one. The story of the 2019 processions continues the theme of 2018: bigger is better. A media spokesperson for the UOC-MP went so far as the claim that the UOC-MP procession consisted of real faithful, whereas the other Church allegedly paid people to participate in the procession.

The bottom line is that the public display of the liturgical procession is one of political theology. Derkatch is correct in her conclusion that both crowds were quite large. But the important point here is that size does not matter. What matters is the content of the public liturgical procession. In a certain sense, the assertion that the procession included nonreligious people is true. History suggests that they joined the crowd for a non-religious reason – curiosity (to see what all the fuss is about), or perhaps to ask for alms.

The participation of nonreligious people in a liturgical procession, however, evinces a golden opportunity for those who claim to be religious. Ultimately, the duty of the religious person is to be the body of Christ to those who walk alongside them. As “religious people,” we are to be Christ to them, and it is our duty to see the image of Christ in the nonreligious. Processions that chant melodious slogans will garner the attention of the people, but serve no real liturgical purpose, and are therefore doomed to fall flat, like the waste dropped by the participants of the crowd as they dissipate.

This example of religious processions that become demonstrations of political theology is designed to call for a revival of public liturgical processions that bear witness to Christ and proclaim God’s reign. Liturgical scholars continue to study history and introduce rites rooted in tradition that simultaneously present the people to Christ and complete a necessary ritual function.

The history of processions offers numerous possibilities for contemporary public witness. Dioceses and parishes can embark on public processions of repentance, asking forgiveness of God and one’s neighbors for the sins of violence, racism, exploitation, and harm to creation. Similar processions could be organized with liturgies of reconciliation in communities suffering from serious divisions. The creation of ecumenical processions of thanksgiving for God’s blessings would also be welcome, especially in places where Christian patrons served all of the people.

My own hope is that in the near future, an all-Ukrainian procession would take place in commemoration of mutual forgiveness and unity among the Orthodox Ukrainians, in conjunction with a joint Divine Liturgy.

What kind of procession would bear witness to Christ and proclaim God’s reign in your community?      

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