It is common to hear calls to “Put Christ back in Christmas,” but not so common to ask the same for Easter. Yet Easter has been more profaned and commercialized than Christmas. With bunnies, decorated eggs, jelly beans and songs about bonnets, there is scarcely mention in common culture of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead, let alone sales of items commemorating the same. Despite the proliferation of snowmen and red-cheeked Santas at Christmas, the season features the Child Jesus, with Christmas carols about the stable and angels from on high. Where in popular culture does the Easter bunny share space with the Risen Savior?
Fortunately, the growing numbers of Latinos in Catholic America provide a potent antidote to a secular Easter. You can usually find in a Latino Catholic parish on Good Friday a live re-enactment of the Via Crucis. The effort typically requires months of preparation and follows the pattern established in Catholic piety for the Stations of the Cross. Participants dress as Roman soldiers, Jewish high priests, and as people of Jerusalem, while an actor chosen to be Christ and others to be the Blessed Mother, Mary Magdalene and the apostles, witness the event.
I was working in a Bronx parish while studying for my doctorate many years ago when a documentary was made of the Via Crucis. And I find that little has changed when I compare that parish event with the reenactment every Good Friday at St. Ann’s Church in Tobyhanna among the scattered Latino Catholic population of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
The centrality of the Passion to the Christian faith cannot be overstated: Without the Cross on Good Friday, there can be no Resurrection on Easter Sunday. While fixation on a suffering Christ can detract from the glory of the Resurrection, the opposite is also true. Claiming the prize of Redemption without paying the cost of discipleship is a distortion of Christianity, as explained by Dietrich von Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister who gave his life attempting to overthrow Adolph Hitler.
The genius of today’s living Via Crucis is found in its message to the modern world. By walking the streets of barrios where crime and drug-trafficking claim lives on a daily basis, the faithful take their witness to redemption out of the church building and into the streets. This imitates the walk of Christ to his execution surrounded by mocking mobs that rejected his Gospel message.
The Stations of the Cross were part of the pilgrimages Christian believers made when journeying to the Holy Land over the centuries. But under the inspiration provided by St. Francis of Assisi, churches began to line their walls with pictures of each of these “stops” that pilgrims had made in Jerusalem so that everyone could walk with Christ in His passion.
The practice of making the Via Crucis a live reenactment with theatrical embellishments resulted in the famous Passion Plays such as the famous one at Oberammergau in Germany. The guiding inspiration of these passion dramas can be traced to the Jesuits. The Society practices the Spiritual Exercises of their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, which advanced a new element in Christian meditation on the life of Christ. Instead of asking those praying to imagine themselves living in the past, back in the times of Christ, the Exercises ask the one meditating to imagine Christ walking alongside of them in the contemporary world.
While this may seem as only a slight difference, it really constituted a revolutionary moment in Christian spirituality during the challenges presented by the Protestant Reformation. It was an anticipation of today’s question: “What would Jesus do?” When Latinos and Latinas today imitate the sufferings of Christ and journey through tough neighborhoods they provide witness that Christ suffers every day from sins of addiction and gang violence. But the message delivered by the march through the barrio is that faith can triumph over failure and that the crucifixion is undone by the Resurrection.
I believe this rich tradition is part of the significant contribution to Catholic America being made by Latino Catholics. To staunch the escapism of chocolate bunnies, turn to the Spanish language reenactment of the Passion to keep Christ in Easter.