We are used to community parades, graduation processions, and wedding processions. Not everyone is used to a procession in worship at church.
However, even though many modern churches or traditions don’t process anymore, it is an ancient and important Christian practice. In many Anglican churches, as the worship is starting, the ministers process to the front of the church, following the cross. After worship, they “recess” out. There are other forms of procession, but let’s talk about this one for now.
Processing behind the cross is an ancient Christian practice. Egeria was a nun who traveled to Jerusalem in the 3rd or 4th century, journaling her experiences. She was specifically interested in what the Christians there were doing in worship, and how it compared to her home practices. She describes a procession of all the people, behind the cross, and with the Gospel book.
Long before that, though, the People of God were marching in procession. The People of Israel processed up to the temple, chanting Psalms as they went.
Gathered and Sent Out
The idea of the procession is simple. We are gathering for worship from outside, from our daily lives and community. We are approaching God, through Christ, therefore the cross goes before us. As we leave, we are being sent back out into the world, with the cross leading the way.
It used to be that everyone gathered outside of the worship space, laity and clergy, and then followed the cross in and then out. Because of the need for seating, time, etc, not everyone processes today. But the symbolism remains. We are under the cross of Christ, and we follow the cross of Christ into the presence of God, and into the world.
There are other aspects to procession. One is the idea of a victory march. Paul wrote about this in his second letter to the Corinthians, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere…” We march into the church in victory, victory over sin and death through Christ, and we march out in victory, taking the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ with us. If we use incense in our worship, we literally take the sweet smelling fragrance with us!
There are other processions. On Palm Sunday, we hold a Procession of the Palms. There are eucharistic processions and a solemn burial procession. All are under the cross.
Processions are not simply pageantry for the sake of pageantry. There is nothing wrong with pageantry, unless it is empty and done for its own sake. Processions are pageantry for a reason, the reason being Christ.