Medieval and modern Easter Plays
The Way of the cross
One of my fondest childhood memories is of being trained up for several weeks by my primary teacher to go to the local parish church and sing a special item for the congregation on Easter Sunday.
While I was a Christian, my enjoyment of performing the item was only partly religious as I could sense the drama of the story and the theatricality of celebrating an event that was so significant to hundreds of people. What I did not fully know at the time was that I was participating in a great heritage of festival and spectacle surrounding the Lenten and Easter seasons.
Medieval Mystery plays
In medieval times Church celebrations, pageantry and spectacle formed a high point of community life.
More elaborate and creative plays were penned to represent various Biblical events or explore moral conundrums.
The performances and scripts were usually localised and closely linked to the local landscape and city.
These plays also incorporated a combination of earthy humour and superstition.
The York Cycle
One such set of plays for which historical records and manuscripts exist are known as the York cycle. A number of manuscripts remain from the cycle and can be read till this day.
Use the accompanying links to learn more about the York cycle, and please navigate back to my hub using the back arrow key.
See where the procession travelled.
- York PSim Applet
Link to a scholarly simulation of the path of the parade floats.
The York Cycle
- The Mystery Plays: History of York
Read about the origin of the Mystery plays in the county of York, Great Britain.
The Stations of the Cross
One of the best known meditational aids which can also be enacted in a congregation is known as “The stations of the Cross”.
This is based upon the path Jesus is thought to have travelled in Jerusalem on his way to the crucifixion. In Jerusalem this route is marked out and is known as the “via dolorosa”.
Early Christians would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to walk along this path.
During the Middle Ages, The fourteen stations of the cross were marked out in churches so that people could participate without journeying to the Holy Land. Each station may be accompanied by a Bible reading, prayer and time of silence. Children or adults may also act out the events associated with the station.
Station 1: Jesus is condemned before Pilot.
(This is based upon John 19:16.) It involves a court room scene, where the Jewish people clamour for a death sentence and the governor washes his hands to absolve himself of responsibility.
Station 2: Jesus begins to carry his cross.
(Read Mathew 26:31-32)
Station 3: Jesus tires and falls.
(Job 16:6, 17:1) This scene reflects the weakness of fatigue, blood loss from a flogging and an awareness of coming death.
Station 4: Jesus passes his mother
Station 5: Simon carries the cross for Jesus.
Station 6: Veronica wipes sweat from Jesus face.
(Ecclesiasticus 6:14-15) This incident is extra-canonical as it cannot be found in the gospels.
It represents an act of compassion from a woman, who may have been a stranger or a close friend. It also reminds us of the woman who anointed Jesus head and feet with oil at the feast at Bethany. (Mathew 26:5-7)
Station 7: Jesus falls a second time.
This station re[resents the anguish of Christ’s journey and reflects upon the prophecies in the old testament. (Jeremiah 4:19)
Station 8: The women of Jerusalem are weeping.
Jesus shows his selflessness in telling the women not to cry for him, but for themselves and their families. (Luke 23:28)
Station 9: Jesus falls a third time.
At this station the meditation is based upon Jesus pleas in the Garden of Gethsemane that God would allow him to forgo the ordeal. (Luke 22:42) The reading is taken out of its chronological context and used to accompany a presumed crisis of weakness upon his journey.
Station 10: Jesus Robe is removed.
Station 11: Jesus is nailed onto the cross.
An accompanying sign mockingly pronounces him “The king of the Jews”. (John 19:19-22)
Station 12: Jesus is mocked upon the cross, cries out to God and dies.
Station 13: Jesus is taken from the cross and wrapped in a cloth.
Station 14: Jesus is laid in the tomb.
If you are familiar with the passion story in the Bible, you will notice that the stations may not be in the exact order you would expect, and additional charming pieces of tradition have been added over the years. Other parts of the story, appear to have been omitted, but may be woven into stations where appropriate. For example, such as Jesus asking his disciple to care for his mother (John 19:25-27) may be incorporated into Station 4, forgiving the soldiers station 10 or 11 (Luke 23:34), and promising eternal life to the thief by his side Station 11 or 12 (Luke 23:40-43).
No crucifixion story is complete without contemplation of the resurrection (Luke 24:1-9). However, many congregations will end Maundy Thursday or Good Friday on a sombre note, to break into song and celebration again on Easter Sunday.
The resurrection is occasionally included as the 15th station, but this is not usually done before Easter Sunday.
Costello, G. 1988 A Bible Way of the Cross: for children, Twenty-third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut
Gleeman, R. 1991 Stations of the Cross for Children: a dramatised presentation, Blackrock,Columba