Friday, April 10, 2009
Sometimes traditions are nearly the same (see Domingo de Ramos, for example). Others are so different and so unexpected that the contrast leaves you marveling at the wide, wide world.
Back home, Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday) is known as Maundy Thursday. “Maundy,” as every seminarian knows, comes from the Latin word for commandment, a reference to Jesus’ new commandment to “Love one another as I have loved you.” As an illustration of this love, Jesus then washes his disciples’ feet. Back home, in most of the Lutheran churches I’ve attended over the last few years, we do the same. The congregation gathers, lining up to have their feet washed – and maybe to wash a few feet themselves. Everyone who wants to participate, does. After Holy Communion – which carries special meaning on this night when we remember its institution – the altar is stripped bare, and all paraments and vestments are folded up and taken out of the church, usually while a plaintive Psalm is sung by a soloist. The congregation departs in silence.
It’s important that I write that little inadequate description, even though I know some of you are more than familiar with it, because the above scene is what was going through my head like a movie as we walked to church Thursday evening - and it was nearly the opposite of what we were about to experience.
On Thursday evening we found a seat in the back of the parroquia and did our best to follow along with the service. Chris always does a better job with this than I do; frustrated with language issues and the lack of a helpful order of service, I usually give up trying to follow what’s going on and end up just watching.
As Mass began, twelve costumed men stood in the back of the church, preparing to process forward. By costumed, I mean they wore brightly colored satin robes with sashes, the traditional way you see Jesus and his disciples presented in paintings. From her friends in San Juan Chris had learned that these men were chosen from among the congregation to represent the disciples during the footwashing ceremony. Indeed they did: When the time came, the priest – representing Jesus, as the priest always does – knelt down to wash the feet of the people representing the disciples, a living symbol that the hundreds of people in the cavernous cathedral watched.
Well, some of the people, anyway. We were sitting near the back and couldn’t really see anything. Here we were in one of the most intimate services of the church year, and we were in the least intimate church in town. It looked as though weren’t going to have our feet washed or do any foot washing ourselves, and we faithful Protestants definitely weren’t going to be invited to Holy Communion on this of all nights. During the sermon the priest tried valiantly to counteract some of the priest-as-Jesus symbolism, urging each of us to love our neighbor as Jesus commanded us, but I was already distracted. I felt awfully homesick. I missed participating in the service, singing songs, taking communion, even the indescribable awkwardness of footwashing. I missed everything.
About halfway through the service I noticed that large groups of people – families and extended families, it looked like – kept entering the church, standing by the door for five minutes, and then leaving. After awhile I started to get annoyed, and I whispered to Chris: What is the deal? These people just stop in, breathe a bit of the incensed air, and then leave? She shrugged: Maybe they’re starting their visitas already.
Our landlord, Luis, told Chris a few days ago about the visitas, one of the traditional Semana Santa practices, known usually by its full name: Las Visitas a Las Siete Casas, or the Visits to the Seven Houses. The houses are represented, Luis said, by the templos, or church buildings, in Lagos. But this was all we knew; we had never heard of the Visits to the Seven Houses before, and wondered what it would look like.
When it was time for communion we left – I never see the point of staying to watch – and walked down to another church a few blocks away. Mass was over at this church, but a long line of people was streaming into door of the church and streaming out of another. Not sure what else to do, we did what we normally do in these situations: We joined them.
On our way out of the church, we stopped by a table where a woman was selling bread, candles, and little brochures. She was very friendly, and explained everything to us as though we were the foreigners we so clearly are. “This is schedule for the weekend,” she said, pointing to one brochure. “And this paper has the Seven Prayers for the Seven Houses.” For fifty cents we bought a copy of the prayers, then sat down on a bench to try and figure out what they were.
The Visits to the Seven Houses, it turns out, is an ancient Christian tradition (click the link to learn only slightly more). As in the Posadas, people walk from place to place acting out Biblical events. Each visited “house” – or in this case, each church – represents one of Jesus’ stops on the night before he was killed – Caiphas’ house, Pilate’s house, Herod’s house, and so on. At each house, you say a prayer, contemplate the events that took place there, and then move on.
Not wanting to miss out on something that was completely new for us, we followed some people to the next church. As we walked, we noticed that the crowds wandering the streets were getting bigger – much bigger. By the time we arrived at the church it was much too crowded for us to get inside, so we merely read the assigned prayer and kept going.
The next church was surrounded by a huge cement patio. A very long line snaked into the building, but all around it people filled the public space, some sitting on steps and benches and the edges of fountains, some buying fresh potato chips or ice cream cones from the many mobile vendors, some just standing around in half-circles chatting with their friends. “What is this?” I asked aloud, more out of dumbfounded wonder than anything else. “It’s a party,” said my esposa, matter-of-factly. She had bought a bag of fresh potato chips with lime and salt on them, and happily offered me one.
By now all of the downtown streets were filled with people. They talked and laughed and ate and kids chased each other as they made their way from one church to the next. Inside the churches there was something like silence, to be sure. At one parish a youth group acted out the events of the Last Supper, complete with costume and a fake wig of flowing locks for Jesus.
At another there was a mannequin-like statue of Jesus, and people gathered around, reaching up to touch the hem of his garment before moving on. But everything else was indeed like any other Mexican street party. It was the third time, actually, that we had experienced this sort of thing, after the everyone-outside-going-house-to-house events of the Day of the Dead and the Posadas, all three stupefying hybrids of public spirituality and food-filled fiestas.
I kept thinking about how at home Maundy Thursday ends with solemnity and silence, while here Jueves Santo ends with a roving street party. What does this mean? Is one more reverent than another? If you have an answer, I’d love to hear it, but I can barely begin to put my systematic brain to work: The contrast is almost too much for me.
And what would Jesus think?
Of course, I cannot speak for the Lord. But I have a hunch that somewhere, Jesus is laughing. I can almost hear it: A great long laugh of approval.
If you’re going to have a Last Meal, I hear him say, It might as well be a party.