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Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Way of the Cross (Via Crucis)

In keeping with it being Easter, I figured I'd celebrate by depicting the crucifixion.  I know--twisted--but I wanted to provide some images of what I found to be one of Helsinki's more interesting and oddest, if you know the culture, Easter events.

Walking back from lunch last week, I noticed this huge, blood red sign in Senate Square advertising the performance of a via crucis on Good Friday.  Those of you who aren't familiar, via crucis is an ancient Christian tradition, originating in the Middle Ages, where Christians follow the path of Christ's last day(s).  It's commemorated in modern Catholic churches with the stations of the cross, but in some very traditional areas they still follow a medieval practice.  This can be an actual reenactment of all 14 key events done in sequence by the same group of actors done over something close to the actual time; it can also be all or some of the key events reenacted on stages either continuously or staggered over a period ranging in time from several hours to all day.  Think Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," although that was a VERY restrained via crucis.  (I think it was only shocking to those who aren't familiar with past practices--oh, wait a minute, I was expecting modern Americans to be historically literate.  Sorry!)

Whatever the choice, it's a very old-fashioned practice and even some of the most "Catholic" places in Western Europe--Spain, Italy, and Ireland--do it infrequently, if at all.  I'm familiar with these procedures not because I've seen them--I've seen other Easter festivals but not a via crucis--but because they're a classic example of medieval piety, introduced to communicate a Christian message more profoundly and viscerally to a largely illiterate audience.  They're a great way to study what were perceived to be the basic components of Christianity in the Middle Ages and to learn about society's biases (some of the antisemitic stuff can be wild.)  It's also one of the practices that Protestants and even some Catholic reformers reacted so strongly against in the 16th century.

Imagine, then, my surprise at seeing a via crucis here in a country that is 96% Lutheran but is predominantly secular!  I just stopped, laughed out loud, and took a picture.  What was interesting, too, is that the Finnish friend I was with explained it in exactly ways that any intelligent medieval theologian would've agreed with.  So this I had to see.

(As a bit of contextual note.  It turns out these reenactments are becoming more and more popular in evangelical Protestant communities, something that I, as a historian of religion, find funny and ironic in the extreme.  There are lots of evangelical groups in the US that do them, in some cases even uses spikes and actual whips.  The case of secular, Lutheran Finland seemed particularly weird, though, until one of my ex-students told me that this is part of the Pietist resurgence in Lutheranism.  Pietism was a much more evangelical, mystical strand of Lutheranism that arose in the 17th century, and its practitioners turned back to a lot of pious practices of the later Middle Ages as a way of developing a more personal, emotional connection with God.  While I understand it intellectually, though, the historian in me finds it quite funny.  What goes around, comes around, and Martin Luther is rolling in his grave--or at least some of his early followers are.)

In any case, come 9:30 pm on Good Friday, I'd stationed myself in front of the Finnish Supreme Court building, one of the main venues and right near Senate Square where the culmination/crucifixion was set to be staged.  I'd since learned that the via started at 9 pm and lasted until 11 pm, and they did it in 3 acts: The Denunciation/Gardens of Gethsemane, the trial and sentencing, and his movement towards and actual crucifixion.  They were also staging it at 3 big venues in downtown: the podium at one of the main parks, the Supreme Court building, and in front of Helsinki Cathedral (Lutheran).  I didn't get there early enough to see the Gardens, so I figured the Supreme Court building would be a great place to station myself.  Several thousand Finns and I all had the same idea.  Actually walking there itself was pretty wild because they'd turned off the lights on Senate Square (where my tram stop was) and on the road up to the Court building; you can get a sense of the darkness and the drama that the one lit building provided.

After about half an hour wait, where Ted entertained himself mooching pets and I tried to keep him from "exploring" too thoroughly the tripod of a very nice Finnish guy (and that's NOT a euphemism), we saw 2 police horses in the distance.  At first, I thought they were actually part of the play, but here you can see how the play at the security went side by side.

Here's another shot of the Court building just as the play arrived.  I kept trying to get a sense of how it actually looked, and no matter how many settings I tried, I primarily got dramatically lit shrubs.  The play actually seemed closer, and it was easier to view because the building across the street, which is where we were, is actually up on a bit of a hill.  We could all line the driveway and get de facto staggered viewing.

When the play started, I realized that they were focusing on the key stories somewhat melded together but in general chronological order.  Unfortunately, all the performances and narration were in Finnish, but obviously I knew the events.  That meant I could concentrate on more of the details, like the amazing voice that the narrator had.  She's the person that they coined the word mellifluous to describe!  Amazing story-telling voice!  In fact, I even tried to get a couple of videos here to give you a sense of the fully sound and image experience.

Unfortunately, because of my camera equipment and lack of skill, I couldn't get really good night shots.  The next day, though, I found this great website on Flickr by a guy calling himself JohntheFinn, and I'd like to thank John for providing these great images for you guys and my memories.

One of the things I'd hoped the via crucis people would do is use the Supreme Court as a setting for the trial and Pontius Pilate, although I seriously doubt they did it from the sense of irony that inspired me.  Much to my amusement/pleasure, they did, and here's Pontius himself arguing against condemning Jesus.  (I don't have an image of their Barabbas, but he was pretty wild--literally.  He looked a bit like a half-naked wildman.)

Wanted to get this closeup of Jesus.  The guy who was playing him is a graduate theater student at the University, and I understand that the actors are mix of people: professionals volunteering, theater students & profs, locals, etc.  In this case, it's definitely Jesus as Hunk.

Once Jesus was whipped and condemned, this wave of Finns and I walked the block down to the Senate Square.  They staged the crucifixion here, and it's an amazingly dramatic place to do it.  You see, Helsinki Cathedral is all in white, which gives lighting experts a wonderful canvas, and it's built on this granite outcropping; to go from the square to the cathedral entrance you have to climb close to 50 stairs.  It's definitely where students hang out on warm summer days, and with enough snow, it makes a great winter sled run.

In this case, Ted and I joined an even larger number of Finns who stationed themselves all around Senate Square to watch.  (Like with my earlier pictures of the Court, we were actually much closer than this picture suggests.)  In just 5-10 minutes the via crucis joined us, first with the group playing the crowd lined up across the top holding torches, then with the narrator, Veronica, and 4 other guys who I couldn't identify dressed in white.

Then, from the top of the cathedral steps, came this single note from an antique-sounding horn.  When the player finally appeared about 5 minutes later, it looked like he was blowing on a huge, old-style, horn horn; it sounded like those re-creations of ancient warhorns.

That's when poor Ted lost his cool.  Something about the combination of darkness, crowds, and the war horn rattled the guy, which doesn't happen often at all.  Suddenly he went into full alert mode and stayed that way pretty much through the remaining 10-15 minutes we were there.  Roman-style war horns--who'd have thought that was his worry button?

Here I tried to get close-up pictures of Christ climbing the stairs.  On both of these the cross was on the ground, but he did carry it up all the way.  Here they also staged Veronica wiping the sweat from Christ's brow and Simon of Cyrene helping Christ carry the cross.

An interesting aside here is that, while everyone else was in costume, Simon the Cyrene was in street clothes.  I'm sure there was some theatrical reason for that, although I'll be darned if I know it.

The lady who played Veronica also sang, and she had a fabulous voice; if she isn't a member of the National Opera company, she has to be a student there.

I also wanted to include this picture because I loved the Finnish take on Middle Eastern clothing.  I mean, I know it could be snowing during this, but this has got to be the warmest ancient robe I've every seen!  The fingerless mitts are pretty good, too.

At the end, they slowly raised the two thieves on the cross, then Christ himself with dramatic narration and the fanfare of horns.

Here you can really see how the white cathedral adds a wonderfully dramatic backdrop.

What you can't see here, unfortunately, is how they handled the crosses.  Believe me, there was little, if any, danger of Christ or the thieves actually hurting themselves.  While Christ carried a more lightweight cross, waiting for him here was something made out of 6x6s, and he stood on a platform of steel bolted into the cross.  Then they tied his hands to the cross, although the dramatization of him being nailed to it was graphic enough!  Probably it was uncomfortable staying stiff while being slowly raised to upright and their arms got tired, but the Finns didn't do one of those crazy, gory reenactments that you hear about sometimes.

By this stage, I'd decided that poor Ted had spent enough time worrying, so I started to head to the far end of Senate Square and our tram stop, turning around every once in a while for the big events, like the thunderclap announcing Christ's death.  That's when I took this picture.

Ted was very pleased to get on the tram and find a nice couple who petted and talked to him until they had to get off.  Once he was at home he ran around like a pup, a sure sign that he'd prefer not to go to another crucifixion, especially one with Roman horns, again.  I'm happy to oblige.


On a lighter note, in honor of Easter:

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