Pilgrimage is an important aspect of all the major world faiths. People who belong to a faith tradition find it important to journey to the heart of the faith beginnings. In the medieval age travel was not as easy as it is today and many people could not get to the root of their faith beginnings. So local places re-enacted the spirituality of the faith and allowed local people, without journeying afar, to encounter and participate in the devotions they would have shared on a full-scale pilgrimage.
Such religious ceremony often had (and still does!) aspects of drama that was the precursor of Greek and later Elizabethan drama. At Christmas and Easter the great liturgies celebrating the birth and death of Christ had musical exchanges between choristers similar to a dialogue. In time this became increasingly elaborate and costumes were introduced to individualise and emphasise the various characters.
Gradually, not just the formal liturgy was elaborately re-enacting an event in Christ’s life, but more and more of the biblical stories were performed so that people could share in the events. Their ‘stories’ were about the Creation of the World, how Man fell from living in harmony with God and became self-centred. They then developed into portraying how God sought to ‘redeem’ and restore humanity from selfish living to a deeper awareness of himself. This reached the climax in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Such day-long festivals involved the whole community and as such left the strict domain of the church. They depicted in the outdoors short dramatic episodes of the human story and in many cities, as at York, each episode
happened in a particular place and then moved on to the next place where a new episode was performed. Once the church had lost the main ownership of the drama local popular tastes affected the particular religious orientation. Humour was introduced, as in Noah’s ‘nagging wife’, an element not hitherto present in the liturgical format in the church.
However, the Mystery Plays were a desire to participate in the religious understanding of human life, and in each episode is an attempt to see the good news and grace of God. The main purpose was and is to enact the basic doctrine of the Christian Church and to allow people to see that Incarnation makes Godliness available to all and leads us to Resurrection and Heaven. As a pilgrimage the plays re-enact the mystery of God, the wonder of life, and the human participation unto God.
- The Venerable Richard M C Seed, Archdeacon of York