Tonight, I was asked to introduce a staged reading of my dear friend Scott Bronson’s play,Tombs. I ended up thinking about the plays of Corpus Christi, and transubstantiation and stuff. Anyway, this is what I ended up saying.
“I stand before you, on this Good Friday, to talk about a play. A play, as it happens, written by one of my dearest friends. I’ve seen the play in production; I regret that I will not be able to stay to see it tonight. But I want to begin in a place a long time ago, and a long way off. The towns of York and Wakefield and Chester in the North of England, sometime in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It’s June, and spring harvests are in. Nights still a bit chilly, days crisp and clear and warmed by the sun. A parade has begun, and the priest carries before him a holy wafer and a vial of wine. Perhaps we hear a song in Latin “Oh, salutaris hostia,” sung in perfect, four-part harmony. Tonight, there will be a feast; today, a parade, and performances.
The feast of Corpus Christi begins on the Thursday six weeks following Easter; six weeks, that is, after Maundy Thursday. Corpus Christi is Latin for the “Body of Christ.” The Feast day celebrates the eucharist, the real presence of Christ in the elements of the host—the body and blood of Christ. Holy wafers and wine, in the Catholic tradition. Tap water and Wonder Bread, in the Mormon faith. Served by twelve year olds, their shirts too big for their necks, clip-on ties askew. Every Sunday, at mass, back then, we’d take the sacrament; as Catholics still do. But in addition, an annual holiday celebrated the host itself. Corpus Christi is primarily a Catholic feast day, though some denominations in the Anglican tradition also celebrate it. We Mormons don’t bother with it. About the only Holiday we worry about in June is also about Fathers: when we get our Dads a tie or some cologne. But for Catholics, 13th through 16th centuries, Corpus Christi was a major holiday, and a fun one.
The idea for Corpus Christi came from a woman, Juliana of Liege, an orphaned child-turned nun, who had a vision of the moon, darkened by a spot, signifying, in her mind, a deficiency in the liturgical calendar. She suggested that in addition to the weekly Eucharistic service, that a special feast day be established just to celebrate that Sacrament, and the miracle of transubstantiation. Pope Urban IV eventually established Corpus Christi as a feast day in 1264.
One of the main ways in which the Feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated was through the performance of plays. That may seem a little strange at first, until we interrogate the practice. Although we Mormons don’t share with Catholics their belief in the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is at the heart of Corpus Christi, we also practice it, do we not? In this miraculous art form we call theatre? In transubstantiation, the substance of sacramental bread literally becomes flesh, and wine becomes blood. Well, what do actors do, but take upon themselves, with the aid of some greasepaint and a costume piece, literally flesh out, provide flesh to, an idea, an abstraction, a series of constructions of language. Dramatic characters, living human souls, enacting a story, for our edification and enjoyment.
Initially, Corpus Christi started with a parade honoring the elements of the host, but in time, plays were written and performed by the guilds of the community—the solid backbone of Christian society, the tailors and bakers and nailmakers and cobblers and wheelwrights. The plays they wrote have survived, especially in England. We call them Mystery Plays, perhaps to celebrate the twin mysteries of Incarnation and Atonement, in which God became Man, and later died for our sins.
Joseph of Galilee was a favorite character in the plays of Corpus Christi. The unidentified and anonymous authors of the these plays understood something fundamental about drama; that comedy and tragedy are not competing, but complementing masks and styles. Noah is a doddering old buffoon, his dottiness juxtaposed against the shrieks of drowning neighbors. Herod’s soldiers are drunks. And even the soldiers crucifying our Lord are comedically bad at their jobs. We’re allowed to laugh, just before we’re invited to weep. Astonishingly, shockingly, the plays still work in production. And are still frequently produced.
Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, is a comic figure as well. He’s old, a senile and feeble cuckold. The ‘foolish old man, married to a younger woman’ would become a staple of Moliere, of Cervantes, of commedia dell arte and TV sitcoms. And in the York version of Corpus Christi, the play of the Annunciation, performed by the pewterers and metal-workers guild, Joseph contemplates suicide.
The purpose of the Corpus Christi plays was to humanize the characters of the Bible, to make them accessible. Since the liturgy was in Latin, most congregants likely went through Sunday services in a bit of a daze. Stained glass windows served as a nice aid to communication. So did acting; and some priests became as adept at chewing the scenery as in administering the wafer and wine. But so did these annual exercises in community theatre, which were not in Latin, but in the vernacular, in the robust and blunt Middle English of Northern Britain. The point was to point up the shared values of the entire town, to celebrate together the hard-won spirituality of the late Middle Ages. When we read about medieval Christianity, what strikes us are its heresies; the mortification of the flesh, the violent sexism and anti-Semitism. The violence: period. Products, perhaps, of a culture too close to death, too used to instant, sudden, inexplicable annihilation.
But we can relate to the plays. The plays and the music and the cathedrals—the products of genuine devotion—we can look there, and feel the same kinship and wonder we feel in holy places today; the caves of Lescaux, and the temples of India, and Tenochtitlan and Machu Picchu, or in concert halls, listening to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony or Barber’s Adagio for Strings. That sense of shared humanity and reverential adoration.
And here, tonight, at UVU. In Tombs, Scott Bronson shows us a very different Joseph, the kind and caring father to whom our Heavenly Father entrusted his Only Begotten. Joseph has just died, in fact–though we flash back to catch a glimpse of his parenting style–and Mary and Jesus mourn together outside his tomb.
But in many respects, Tombs reflects the same impulse that drove the plays of Corpus Christi. It tells us the story of our faith. It reorients us towards our theology, towards the beliefs that center us and define us. It reminds us of what we hold most dear.
It’s a deceptively simple play, really. A mother and son mourn together, and she presses him to tell her his plans. They share memories. He has an upcoming task that he dreads—she presses him to let her share his burden.
As I re-read the play once again this morning, that word came back to me—burden. In a very real sense, Scott has written a play about unburdening. Through confession and conversation, through memories and recollections. Through atonement. These characters, so familiar, and yet also doctrinally distanced from us, unburden themselves to each other. As we literally unburden, pass on our burdens, of sin and pain and regret and error, to our Savior, who then chooses to bear them himself, for us, out of love. And the play ends with two words, the two words above all others, all Christians wish we could speak. Thank you.
Juliana of Liege saw a flawed and incomplete moon, and sought to fill it with a celebration. And communities and towns across the medieval Catholic world enhanced that celebration by writing and rehearsing and designing and directing and building and performing deceptively simple plays, reflecting the profoundest stories and beliefs at the heart of their culture. Scott Bronson has done the same here. He reminds us what must never be forgotten; he speaks for and to our culture of our most central and enduring shared faith. He makes The Word flesh, he theatrically transubstantiates. He places us outside a tomb, and reminds us of a tomb found empty, and how that emptiness fills our hearts. He nourishes us with the bread of mimesis. From the Guild of Scribblers and Thespians, we bring you our fondest story. We share with you: Tombs.