Our Lady of Mount Carmel performs a live via crucis, or stations of the cross, through the streets around Arthur Avenue in the Bronx every Good Friday. This year, I decided to go. Some nasty things have occurred in the neighborhood lately (e.g., a sprawling fistfight with dozens of youth), and I thought this would be a good way to drive out the demons. Hundreds of people participated, NYPD cordoned off the route, and a flashing fire engine brought up the rear.
This was my first time. Up till now, I have been a spectator, watching as it passed beneath my fourth-floor window. As you might imagine, things look different from the street. There were more people than I expected, flowing from sidewalk to sidewalk for more than a block. They were serious, walking quietly and with determination. This was a solemn procession and profession of the faith in three languages: English, Italian, Spanish.
I also noticed something that is impossible to see from my fourth-floor perch: people watching from their perches. They leaned out to watch as we passed by, some waving, others simply staring. You could see surprise on their faces, accustomed as they are to a different kind of spectacle. In fact, I don’t exaggerate when I say that I saw joy on some faces. People even rushed out of stores and cafes to watch the procession and hold aloft their cell phones as if in salute.
The appeal of a ritual like this is that it is unifying and humbling. It unifies not only by bringing people together (e.g., Italians, Irish, Albanians, Mexicans, Dominicans, Haitians, Nigerians), but by overcoming the binary worldview foisted on us: black-white; Left-Right, Democrat-Republican, owner-worker, young-old, male-female, straight-gay. Scripture is clear about the need for unity (Gal 3:28, Rom 10:12, 1 Cor 12:13, Col 3:11). It humbles, because it is about the “other” and the other’s suffering, not the self or self preoccupation. Contrast this with a well-known music festival taking place today that, by its own account, “has become a huge celeb hotspot and ultimately the place to be seen.”
Religion, at its best, is not about being seen but seeing. Not about dividing but returning things to their original state, especially relationships. Augustine saw it as binding together what sin had separated: re-ligare. That understanding has particular relevance today in a neighborhood that has been divided by violence and cynicism. I think it has relevance for all of us no matter which neighborhood we live in.
Granted, not everyone sees it this way. There are certainly valid reasons for objecting to religion, but many who do so today have become conditioned by a globalized worldview in which the basic unit of life is the consumer, reinforced by a logic of consumption. That logic says that you exist only to the degree that you consume. So you need to be fed products and services constantly. What does not feed you is to be discarded or eliminated, including the things religion offers as well as other people. We might ask ourselves who benefits from such a cycle.
This logic has desensitized people, distanced them from their true selves, and portrayed religion as an antiquated belief system that has run its course, at least in the West. This is the reason many people, in addition to being ignorant of the arts and humanities, are religiously illiterate. It becomes embarrassing when political figures, who ought to know better, try to enlist Scripture to their cause or pander to certain religious groups.
So, it did not surprise me at all when a woman, running out of a corner bakery, breathlessly asked her companion what was going on. “It’s a religious thing,” he replied. That seemed to satisfy her, and then they both held up their cell phones.