• Adrian J. Boas

On Procession

Palm Sunday procession, Bethany to Jerusalem, 1933 - G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Public domain

As someone with what is perhaps a healthy sense of fear (certainly a modicum of common sense), and who has retained long into adult life (and in spite of observing many abuses) a degree of faith in authority figures, rules and regulations, I find it inexplicable that in these Corona days so many people are happy to cast aside the advice of health officials regarding social distancing and to participate in crowded public events. It seems that people are now more than ever inclined to do so. Apparently, the appeal of being absorbed into a mass of humanity remains strong enough to encourage many people to throw all caution to the winds. Personally, I have no such inclination. I don't like crowded beaches and although I find the crowds in Mahane Yehuda, the Jerusalem market, and in the narrow streets of the Old City, fascinating and colourful social spectacles, I prefer, as much as possible, to be an observer of them rather than a participant. I have always kept my distance from political protests, crowded religious events and indeed any type of large rally.

Mass gatherings can be both positive or negative, and often combine degrees of both states. Music is generally a congenial motivator of crowds. The 1969 Woodstock concert was mostly an amicable affair. The same is generally true, despite their competitive nature, of sport events. Politics and religion, however, are rather more complex. One feels revulsion when observing in old newsreels the mindless masses attending Nazi rallies, but quite the opposite when regarding the mass protests that brought down the Berlin wall in 1989. Like politics, music and sport, religion is a great manufacturer of crowds, perhaps the greatest of all, and by no means always one of positive motivation or outcome. One hardly needs to enumerate the times in history when religion has led to suffering and loss of life. It is, nonetheless, often genuine devotion that induces people to take part in a religious ceremony or procession.

I recall once, entirely without intention, being swept along by masses participating in a religious procession in Rome, and I have had other similar experiences, most recently on a visit to Lisbon. On those occasions, though drawn along, I was an outsider, even a somewhat reluctant, albeit curious one. It is quite different to be an intentional participant, to be there by choice and belief, and though I do not myself desire it, I can understand the appeal that participation in a mass procession might have. Any crowd event produces much the same effect, enabling individuals for a short time to let go of the restraints of their individuality and to simply “go with the flow”.

Religious processions were an important element in the calendar of twelfth century Jerusalem, but the earliest crusader procession actually took place even before the city was conquered in the summer of 1099. According to Albert of Aachen, on Friday 8 July, shortly before commencement of the final attack on the walls and following a three-day fast, the bishops and clergy led "all of the Christians" in a circumambulation of the city, a penitential barefoot march, the participants blowing on trumpets and carrying crosses, banners and relics.* It was a symbolic reconstruction of the Israelite procession around the walls of Jericho and an early example of a recurrent theme in the history of the kingdom, which came to be regarded as a rebirth of ancient Israel and its leaders as descendants of the Biblical royal dynasty or the Maccabees. Proceeding north from the camp on Mount Zion the procession marched adjacent to the walls, pausing for prayer at the Place of Ascension on the peak of the Mount of Olives and from there proceeding to the Church of St Mary on Mount Zion where the Muslims on the nearby walls responded with various derisive acts and fired arrows at the clergy. If this procession did not conclude as on that earlier occasion, with a miraculous collapse of the city walls, it perhaps ultimately contributed to a similar outcome. It fulfilled an important function in resolving disputes that had arisen between different factions in the army including dissension between some of its leadership, notably a dispute between Raymond of Toulouse and Tancred. But most important was the moral effect it had on the rank and file, rejuvenating their fighting spirit and belief in the truth of their cause.

*Albert of Aachen, History of the Journey to Jerusalem, trans. Susan B. Edgington, vol. 1, book 6, Farnham and Burlington, 2013, p. 215.