Monday, April 6, 2009
Domingo de Ramos
Kim Erno, director of the Lutheran Center in Mexico City, once told us how he made a minor language gaffe early in his ministry with a Latino community.
Speaking in Spanish, he announced the upcoming observance of Palm Sunday - and in short order was informed that instead of announcing el Domingo de Ramos (the Sunday of Branches, or Palms), he had instead announced el Domingo de Ranas (the Sunday of Frogs). So keep this in mind, o Spanish learners, and take care that you observe Palm Sunday, and not Frog Sunday.
We walked down to the main parish church this morning to begin our own observance of Holy Week, known here as Semana Santa. On our way we passed many families coming back in the other direction from earlier Palm Sunday services. Nearly every child in these families carried a palm - or rather, a woven rounded rectangle of many palms, laid onto a bed of branches of either laurel leaves or chamomile flowers (see the photo above). We walked on.
When we arrived at the parish of La Asuncion there was a makeshift market set up outside, with a dozen or more vendors selling palm leaves woven into all sorts of creations: mostly the rounded-rectangle-on-laurel-leaves, but also little crucifixes and Guadalupes and crosses with different saints' images in them and even little woven chalices with glitter accents. Nearly everything cost between 10 and 15 pesos - about one US dollar.
I asked Chris what she thought accounted for the presence of these woven palm creations instead of the thin single palm leaves handed out on Palm Sunday in the Midwestern Lutheran churches where we grew up. Looking up at the towering palm trees in Lagos' central square, it was clear that one reason was simply that palm branches - and laurel branches and chamomile flowers - were much more plentiful here than in Illinois or Michigan. Another reason, Chris guessed, was that this was a way for low-income people - mostly, it looked like, from out of town - to make a little extra income, selling their woven religious creations outside the church gates.
Whatever the reason, creations these surely were. Back home, we usually fold our single palm leaves into a simple cross. But these people were artists, weaving dry plants into a sturdy cross that held a detailed Christ: bended knees, crown of thorns, even a veritable face of eyes, nose, and mouth woven right in.
Inside the church, things proceeded much as they do back home, excepting the usual differences in liturgy that, right or wrong, I find liturgically frustrating (less congregational participation, fewer songs, restricted communion, priest playing the role of Jesus during the readings).
And I continue to find the practice of reading the entire Passion story on Palm Sunday an unnecessary rush through the rest of Holy Week. Even back home we do this, though, so it's not a Catholic-Protestant issue - though I was surprised to find the Catholics doing it, too. Might we not spend just a bit more time pondering the procession of the palms?
Enough of my griping. One thing was impossible to argue with: Attendance was overwhelming. There are services every hour on the hour nearly all day on Sunday, and at each of them the massive cathedral-sized space fills up, people pouring in and out as the bells toll overhead. At the service we attended, the place was so full that people were gathered in the doorway - standing room only. Hosanna, indeed.
Around 9 at night I went out to get some milk. On my way back, I walked over the bridge, and looked over to see the carnival still going strong, its blinking neon lights looking eerie in the smoky-looking kicked-up dust of the riverbed. I continued on, and saw the cathedral-sized parish church lit up in the distance, its nightly spotlights making it visible for miles. I kept passing families on their way here and there, kids laughing and playing, fathers carrying little ones on their shoulders. Most of these kids wouldn't have school tomorrow - Semana Santa (Holy Week) is universal Spring Break in Mexico.
Then I passed La Luz, the church nearest our house. By the time I passed it it was nearly 10pm, but the place was still abuzz - tamale stands outside, woven-palm vendors, people milling about the church courtyard, and a standing-room only crowd inside, spilling out the doorways. I walked over to catch a glimpse of the sanctuary. Giant palm branches were mounted like green archways over the pews. The priest - decked out in blazing red vestments for the day - was just spreading his arms over the altar to bless the meal.
After I got home I couldn't resist dragging Chris down the hill to La Luz to see what I had seen. "Wow" was all she got out, and then was quiet for awhile. "There are these moments," she finally said, "Moments that seem to contradict everything else. You're struggling along, frustrated, annoyed, moody, just trying to through the day, and then all of a sudden you have one of these moments."
Moments we can't, it seems, create at will. In a recent interview, my favorite theologian was talking about making his band's most recent album. "It's a very strange feeling," Bono said. "We're waiting for God to walk into the room — and God, it turns out, is very unreliable." It's true. Much as you might have wished it, that moment of utter holiness just didn't happen at your morning Palm Sunday service. But then, when you were out for milk, God snuck up on you when you were least expecting it. And then there is nothing else to say but what we always say.
Gracias a Dios.