Christian Ritualistic Practice:
Death, Descent and Triumphal Rebirth
The most prominent theme in Christian history, liturgy, and commemorative ritual is focused unarguably on the redemptive death of Christ at the hands of Judas Iscariot, Caiaphas, and Pilate. The events leading up to Christ’s arrest, arraignment, condemnation, flogging, and crucifixion are chronicled, with variations in content, in The New Testament by two of Christ’s Twelve Apostles (John and Matthew) -- all twelve of whom fled at the time of His arrest and several of whom repeatedly betrayed, denied or renounced Him (Matthew 26:56), in spite of John the Beloved's having attempted to remain, at times, at Christ's side. Mark and Luke, though not Apostles with a capital A, based their equally dubious accounts on 'second and third hand' information ostensibly derived from the Twelve who were simply not present. Due to the importance of this principal theme, i.e. the ill-documented Cruxifixion, the present analysis will construct a cursory synthesis of Biblical narrative, contemporary commemorative practice, and cosmological interpretation from authoritative non-Biblical sources with the intent of shedding light on the largely mysterious origins and increasingly doubtful significance of rites and rituals practiced today during the Christian Holy Week.
The concept of divine death and resurrection is certainly not unique to Christian liturgy, nor had it been at the time of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Even Augustine alludes to earlier pagan Greek and Roman cult practices, of which the Apostles were aware, involving a Holy Week of their own, including a Day of Blood and a Day of Rejoicing, curiously corresponding to the Christian Good Friday and Easter respectively (Sanchez, 1999, 469). Further, Jerome, another saintly Christian chronicler, admits that birth, death and resurrection were themes periodically celebrated in Syria, but in relation to Venus, not Christ (Commentary on Ezekiel, VIII, 14, quoted in Sanchez, loc. cit).
Throughout the non-Christian world, Bell asserts (1997, 122-127), whether in Judaic, Islamic or Hindu cultures, the theme of birth, death and rebirth is equally prominent in the historical record, scriptures and liturgical passages of these Faiths. Since the origins of Judaism and Hinduism, in particular, predate Christianity, the originality of the Christian Redemptive Death and Resurrection theme can be called into question. The fact that variations on this theme appear in Islamic writings, notably with respect to the passion, suffering and death of Husayn ibn ‘Ali (grandson of Mohammed), is also illuminating in terms of the seeming replication of Christ’s passion and death (Bell, 1997, 125).
Having established that the authenticity of Biblical accounts of the final events (Matthew 27-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 22-24; John 18-21), might be viably challenged from a scholarly standpoint, it should prove enlightening to proceed to a discussion of ritualistic practice in relation to commemorative Holy Week observances.
As early as the fourth century, if not before, songs and motets were chanted in commemoration of the Passion of Christ. The last days of Christ were recounted in Latin and in the vernacular in Germany, for example, in ‘plainsong’ motif, largely as an instructive medium (Bowker, 1997, 738). Later, of course, the most prominent of ritualistic chorales, widely heard today, were those of J.S. Bach, notably the St. Matthew Passion, dating from 1729 (op. cit).
However, musical renditions of the Passion, inclusive of factual distortion, were not the only means of commemorating the death of Christ. There was one method, especially appreciated by Adolph Hitler due to its anti-Semitic implications, still performed today, notably the Obergammergau Passion Play in Bavaria. Of course, today, the old Daisenberger version has been somewhat revised to downplay certain sensitive passages (op. cit.).
These two major ritualistic modalities are fairly straightforward and have served their religious propagation purposes for centuries. There are, however, subtler Holy Week rites and rituals associated with contemporary, and earlier, Catholic practice. Campbell, in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1968, 249-251), describes in considerable detail a Holy Saturday baptismal rite that has cosmological implications, as well as seemingly spiritual roots. Holding a (phallic) paschal candle, the celebrant thrusts it three times into the baptismal font, deeper and deeper into the (vaginal) water with each thrust. The symbolism of the male candle penetrating the female regenerative water is further reinforced by references to the Holy Ghost, the "fructifying" influence capable of casting out Satanic Evil. It must be recalled that Christ, on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday), the day after His death, ostensibly descended into Hell, and rose on the third day, Easter Sunday. The baptismal font ritual on Holy Saturday is purportedly a re-enactment of the casting out of Satanic influence to which Christ Himself was being, in that timeframe, subjected.
It is noteworthy that Matthew (28:1), "The Sabbath was over…", makes no mention of Christ’s descent into Hell, nor does Mark (16:1), "When the Sabbath was over…" In Luke (24:1), the narrative acknowledges that, on Saturday, everyone rested, and skips to Easter Sunday. And in John, a young, charismatic writer, the reader learns a little more. They laid Christ to rest on the eve of the Sabbath (John 19:42) and Mary of Magdala returned, before dawn, on Sunday, to the tomb. Thus, no mention of the descent into Hell is forthcoming in the accounts of the Apostles.
Nonetheless, traditional Catholic Rites for Holy Saturday include the baptismal font purification of the fertile water of birth and rebirth, in commemoration of Christ’s descent into the realm of Satan, prior to His Resurrection. Doubtless, they have some other justification for this practice.
What seems operative for our purposes, however, is the common thematic focus of the purifying and sin-removing influence of the life-death-rebirth cycle, ‘picked up’ in Catholic ritual and in the Apostles’ accounts of Christ’s passion and death, whether or not the events themselves are authentic.
In Eliade’s, The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949, 1974), a key work in the area of religious symbolism and cosmology, the reader notes that the broader implications of the regenerative cycle are indeed vast.
"Collective or individual, periodic or spontaneous, regeneration rites always comprise, in their structure and meaning, an element of regeneration through repetition of an archetypal act…" (Eliade, 1974, 85)
Whether the genuine nature of the original occurrence, in this case Christ’s death, can be proven or not, the archetypal re-enactment of those purported events has been part and parcel of Catholic ritual for centuries. Christian ritualistic motets, chorales, passion plays and baptismal font purification rites, among thousands of other ceremonial trappings, have taken their (socio-anthropological) place in Western religious culture along side, to name only a few, their Middle Eastern Islamic and Far Eastern Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist equivalents.
Bell, C. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y., 1997.
Bowker, J. Editor, Oxford English Dictionary of World Religions, Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 1997.
Campbell, J. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1968.
Ebor, D. Committee Chair, The New English Bible: The New Testament, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 1970.
Eliade, M. The Myth of the Eternal Return or, Cosmos and History, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1949 (Original French), 1974 (Second English Paperback).
Sanchez, L. "Resurrection", www.christianism.com, San Diego, Ca., 1999, 469.http://www.christianism.com