In a delicate mix of public entertainment and spiritual fervor, actors dramatize lengthy, almost unbearably bloody scenes of torture while a long-suffering audience endures front-row seats to the Crucifixion.

No, it's not a blockbuster movie by Mel Gibson. It's a play performed in York, England, in the fifteenth century.

Though the violence may shock modern critics, as an artistic expression of the Christian story "The Passion of the Christ" has a long and distinguished heritage, and no discussion of the movie, its purposes, and its aftermath can be complete without an understanding of its historic roots. Let us go back six centuries, to a theatrical form that scourged audiences' emotions as powerfully in its day as Gibson's movie does today.

From the late fourteenth century to the latter half of the sixteenth century, during the annual festival of Corpus Christi to celebrate the mass, town guilds in England staged elaborate plays on outdoor wagons to captive audiences. The centerpiece of these cycles of "mystery plays" was the Passion.

In an age when preaching, art, religious writings, and devotional practices were centered upon the sufferings of Christ (see Chris Armstrong's recent Christianity Today article " The Fountain Fill'd With Blood"), the new phenomenon of popular drama had a unique role to play. Here more than anywhere else, lay people could follow the instruction of the influential devotional guide Meditations on the Life of Christ: "You must direct your attention to these scenes of the Passion, as if you were actually present at the Cross, and watch the Crucifixion of our Lord with affection, diligence, love, and perseverance."

The Passion plays for the most part followed the biblical record, with a remarkable ...

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