Saturday, April 11, 2009

Viernes Santo

Last year we tried to attend a Via Crucis – a Good Friday passion play of Jesus’ final hours acted out in the streets – in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. But we arrived too late. After wandering the streets of Pilsen for an hour or so on a freezing spring morning, we finally found a street vendor and asked her what was up. “Oh,” she explained to Chris in Spanish, “It was too cold, so they moved it inside. But it’s over now.” Sigh. Our failed trip over, we bought some champurrado (chocolate-flavored atole) from her to warm up and then we went home.

This year we were determined not to miss the Via Crucis. There were plenty of options: Posters were hung around town advertising not less than three different churches each carrying out their own Via Crucis in their own neighborhood. We opted for the one taking place at the Templo Calvario – Calvary Temple – because of its perfectly appropriate name and position on the top of the highest hill in Lagos. And of course, not wanting to arrive too late, we left our apartment really, really early.

While nearly every restaurant, store, and office building was closed for the religious holiday, street vendors were out in force. Along the road up to Calvario, the most common item being sold was seafood. Long lines snaked around the block, full of people hoping to buy “fresh” fish for the last meatless Friday. Clusters of pilgrims making their way to the Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos (they’re everywhere this week) crowded around taco stands, ready for a breakfast of fried shrimp and fresh salsa in warm tortillas. It was a chilly desert morning, and we looked everywhere for tamales and atole, but found neither. Who knew it would be easier to get tamales and atole in Chicago than in Mexico?

We arrived at the top of Calvario hill twenty minutes before the scheduled start time: no way would we miss it this time! But ten o’clock came and went, and still no Via Crucis. It finally began about an hour after we arrived. No matter: There was plenty to see while we waited. Food vendors lined the adjoining streets, selling everything from ice pops (known generically as bolis or by their brand name, Bon-Ice – at any large gathering of people in Mexico you will inevitably hear someone walking around with a little cart and a bell yelling bonICE! bonICE! and then loudly rattling off the flavors) to the most popular snack of the day: a full head of green leaf lettuce with lime and chili powder poured over it. You eat it out of the bag, pulling little pieces of lettuce off as if it were cotton candy. Chris thinks it’s genius. I think it’s too weird. You decide.

While we waited for things to begin, child actors prepared for the day by getting into character. Four-year-olds dressed from helmeted head to sandaled toe in bright red-and-blue Roman centurion costumes lifted plastic swords and challenged their ten-year-old brothers to epic duels.

Before either solider could claim victory, however, a line of thirty or more adult actors – all in Biblical costume – marched out of a nearby school building and up the steps into Calvario chapel. We guessed that they entered the church to pray before their performance. Ten minutes later they came back outside and then began taking their places around the large plaza in front of the church. It was time.

It was hard to tell what was going on at first. There was no introductory announcement or anything – just all of a sudden things started happening. Different scenes of action seemed to be taking place in different spots on the plaza. Loudspeakers on the edges of the plaza blared static, then barely understandable words from the performance, then clearly understandable words about kids getting down from off the railings (¡Bajense! ¡Bajense, por favor!), then more static again. Not knowing what to watch, we hurried over to the largest crowd and tried to see over peoples’ heads.

The first scenes were of John the Baptist. This would not, we soon found out, be simply a passion play of the stations of the cross; it would be a play of the entire gospel narrative. John was dressed in animal skin and had long hair that hung over his face. He yelled various things that we couldn’t quite make out. Suddenly Jesus arrived on the scene, and we could see him being baptized, then leaving, presumably driven by the spirit out into the desert. Even without great sound, most of the action was easily recognizable. Most of it.

All of a sudden Roman soldiers arrived on the scene. They yelled at John, then laughed, then John yelled back, and then one of the soldiers ran forward and pushed John down, hard. My heart jumped: A sudden moment of unexpected violence, real violence, not just happening on TV but right there in front of you, only a few feet away. Forget the cheesy costumes: That guy in rags just got slammed down on the hot cement, hard, and the armed men that ganged up on him are staying in character, laughing hard laughs and flashing angry looks. They dragged John away, and with the rest of the crowd, we followed.

Suddenly we were standing in front of a royal throne, watching Herod and his wife welcome us to a party. A harem of scantily dressed women draped themselves around the royal couple. John was dragged out, then violently pushed and shoved down the aisle to the throne; everyone laughed, and he was taken away again. Pulsing Indian music began playing over the loudspeaker, and the women began their dance. One woman in striking black rags – Salome, presumably – gave Herod nothing short of a lap dance. Herod offered her the kingdom, but after a brief consultation with Herod’s wife, she asked for the head of Juan Bautista on a platter. The king was horrified. A few seconds later, two soldiers walked down the aisle toward the throne, making loud jokes and laughing while they carried the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

The crowd grew. More and more families, young couples, and even gangs of what we call “street toughs” made their way up the hill to Calvario to watch the unfolding events. A hooded figure dressed in black led Jesus up the steps of the temple to the highest point on Calvario hill and pointed out over the city below and plains of Jalisco beyond. “All of this, all of this can be yours,” he said. Jesus responded with a few words we couldn’t make out, and then the sinister-looking figure left angrily, and angels led Jesus back down the steps.

Then Jesus walked around the plaza, making his way through the growing throngs to heal different costumed people. He put his hands over one little boy’s eyes, and then suddenly the boy shouted in surprise. “I can see! ¡Milagro! Milagro!” After a time Jesus stopped and began preaching, and then, noticing something was wrong, gave his disciples instructions and within minutes costumed disciples were making their way through the crowd, handing out pieces of bread.

As the action scenes grew more elaborate, young people took each others’ hands to form a human chain link fence to hold back the crowds from the action taking place. The fence seemed to grow and grow as more and more people wanted to be a part of it.

Palm branches were lifted up, and it was Holy Week, Semana Santa. Now more scenes seemed to take place at the same time. While Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples at a long table on the steps of Calvario – a living sculpture of the Renaissance painting – in another part of the plaza Judas tried to negotiate with a hostile Roman army. They laughed and pushed him around, but finally gave him a bag of money and sent him away. Then we were in Gethsemane and – this was hard to see, because we had moved to a tiny garden on the side of the church – Judas was kissing Jesus, a skirmish broke out, Jesus scolded Peter, and then was arrested and led away.

We could see now that people had begun lining the street leading from Calvario down to the center of town. Roman soldiers had tied ropes around Jesus’ hands, and now began leading him down the street, pushing and prodding and making jokes and laughing loudly as they went. His mother followed behind, looking distraught, but she was kept from getting too close by the spears of the soldiers. Young girls in similar costumes walked behind her carrying slices of oranges, and one of the disciples took her side and offered her his arm.

The streets were packed, and we soon fell behind. Chris bought a sombrilla – an umbrella meant to keep out the sun – to protect us from the now-scorching heat. (The next day's paper would carry the headline: "Reviven la Pasión entre intenso calor - The Passion is relived amid intense heat") When we reached the center of town, we found even more people than had been at the top of the hill; many of these people, we guessed, had waited down here for the action they knew was coming. On the steps of the bandstand in the town square Jesus was condemned to death, and on the steps of the main parish church two other condemned criminals joined him. He was stripped of his clothes and dressed in white, and a crown of thorns was placed on his head. Then a giant wooden cross was placed on his back, and he began the long, slow march back up the steep hill to Calvario.

All along the sides of the street people crammed in to watch what was happening and to follow Jesus along the road, but the human chain link fence kept them back. We fell behind again, but soon found we had a perfect view of one of the other criminals. He wore only a white sheet tied around his waist, and the rest of his body was dirt-caked and bloodied. The Roman soldiers shoved him back and forth and yelled - "¡VAMOS! ¡VAMOS¡ ¡HAHAHAHAHA¡" - as he staggered up the hill, barefoot on the blazing hot asphalt road. Every few blocks he – or another of the condemned – would fall down on top of his cross, and then the procession would stop as the Roman soldiers glared down at him and around at the crowd – but while they glared, they shaded their fellow actor with their capes and quietly him some water.

When we finally reached the top of the hill we found the largest crowd of the day gathered to see the crosses raised. This took some time, so as the soldiers made loud hammer sounds, “nailing” their prisoners onto their crosses, we found our way up the steps to get a better view. And was it ever a better view. We watched as the crosses were raised up and the dying prisoners looked out over the valley beyond.

The Roman soldiers laughed and offered Jesus a sponge on a stick, and then the prisoner on his left turned his head to the center cross and yelled angrily between spells of heavy, labored breathing. He might have been the best actor of the day, he was so believable. But the prisoner on the far right shut him up, and Jesus said something we couldn’t make out, and then finally the central prisoner breathed his last. The crosses stood up there in the air for awhile, as the crowd watched. Then the prisoners were taken down and their bodies were carried away.

The entire performance took about four hours, and it concluded during the hottest part of the day with the sun blazing down. You would think, with the cheesy costumes and the amateur actors, that a Via Crucis like this might not really be that cool – but you would be wrong. It wasn’t exactly solemn: The vendors kept selling food and teenagers kept flirting with each other and neighbors kept talking to each other distractedly and kids kept playing and heck even Chris and I had to get a drink and an umbrella at one point but all of us, all of us were present, part of the crowd of people watching and wondering what to make of all of the staggering violence, imagining what it must have been like to be a part of the crowd those two thousand years ago.

When it was over, everyone dispersed, and we went home, too – hungry, tired, and filled with the knowledge that we had just seen something we would never forget.

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Later in the evening we walked downtown. I wanted to post a blog piece about Thursday, and then we were going to make our way to church for the Friday evening services. When we left the café, though, we found people gathered on the steps of the church and along the street leading around the central square. What was happening? We decided to wait and find out.

“I think it’s a funeral,” Chris said as she peeked over the crowd to catch a glimpse of the coming procession – and she was half right. First came a relic of the cross, carried as through it were a coffin by a group of four pallbearers and accompanied by the parish priest. Then came the cross itself, draped in a white cloth. Then came a mannequin-like image of Mary carried aloft by another group of men and followed by a long, long line of women dressed in black and carrying candles. As she passed, a haunting voice began to sing through a speaker on the church steps. The effect was chilling.

Jesus came next, in the form of a mannequin-like image dressed in purple and carrying a cross and held aloft by another group of men dressed in black. Then came Jesus lying in a clear closed coffin, wrapped in white cloth, carried again by a group of four pallbearers in black and surrounded by men holding candles. Now another image of Mary, herself dressed in black, following behind, held aloft by women pallbearers and followed, again, by women carrying white candles.

We followed the images until they stopped in the Plaza Capuchinas, site of a former convent of Capuchin nuns. The different groups with their different holy images met in this plaza and took their places around a central space where the priest stood under a cross. As the night faded to black and the plaza was lit only by the electric torches of the former convent and the candles held by the gathered crowd, the priest led us all in prayer. Chris translated some of it for me. It is hard to well describe the feeling of standing outside at dusk in the middle of Mexico, standing and watching with a crowd of candlelit people holding holy images, praying in another language on the night of Good Friday.

What is this event that took place so long ago? How is it still remembered in such arresting ways by human beings, rich and poor, young and old, two thousand years later and halfway around the world from where it took place? How is this possible?

Words fail. And so stories are acted out. Processions are made through the streets. Candles are lit in the night. Prayers are said in the darkness. The people watch and wait, each people in their own way, but all gathered together by the same event.

Into your hands, Father, into your hands.