Viernes Santo: Holy or “Good” Friday. Sábado de Gloria: Glorious Saturday. Christ crucified and buried is often more important to some in Mexico, it seems, than Christ resurrected from the dead on Easter Sunday.
The procession started at the Cathedral in Cuetzálan. Drums and chants reverberated across town. Previously, elaborate scrolls of flowers lined the street. Now, lovely chalk designs are often used (the economy?).
Similar processions occur elsewhere in Mexico – San Miguel Tzinacapán, Xiloxochico and, of course, the enormous (rather gory) one in Ixtapalapa. Rivaling the Philippines, “Jesus” is tied – formerly actually nailed – to a heavy cross. (Mel Gibson’s pornography ramped violence up beyond the reenactments, perhaps even beyond the reality.) But to the faithful, there is more than enough drama and emotion. It impressed my Catholic but not as devout urban and urbane students from the University of the Americas when I introduced them to that aspect of their own culture.
Greater focus on death and burial was true, in the not too distant past, in the Valley of South Texas. A dear friend, born and reared in the “wild west” of Starr County, recounted recently his memories of Cuaresma (Lent) and Semana Santa (Holy Week). He grew up in the town named for the saint of farmers/ranchers, San Isidro. His mother, very devout, observed Lent scrupulously but, come Holy Week, she went all out. She dressed in black. The radio and television were wrapped in blankets, tied with ropes.
The Señora’s husband cursed when he couldn’t watch his favorite boxing matches. The children longed for their cartoons, to no avail. (Sometime, my friend and siblings would disobey at night, their mother asleep, pressing ears to the radio for secular music, at least.) But the climax, Holy Friday, was often over the top. The home became a chapel, friends and relatives filling the living room, as she read scripture and Catholic teachings regarding the fourteen “Stations of the Cross.” Often, when reaching the second or third “caída,” or fall of Christ, she would tremble and fall into an emotional trance, unable to continue. Others would pick up the readings, the fervent calls and responses to prayers.
The children, hustled together in strict attendance, were often bored or perplexed. Woe to a foolish boy who giggled or made a rude sound. One of the men standing around, arms folded, would snap a whip: “cállese, cabrón!” The coarse language did not seem out of place amidst the religious fervor. Of course, that and the errant child’s “Ow,” would often evoke another round of laughter, barely suppressed. They looked forward to Saturday’s duties, cleaning the picnic area, chasing the rattlers out, readying it for the Sunday gathering, after Misa.
Some readers may remember “pasando la Virgen,” and other Starr County traditions from the 1950s, even the 60s. The statue of Santa Maria taken from the Church, carried from house to house, in an effort of the faithful to bring rain; songs and prayers at each stop – “Ave María, ayudanos…” – with refreshments following (it was sequía—drought—and very hot). Many of those and other traditions may be long gone, but they remain in the hearts of my friend and many others across the Valley of south Texas.
The intensity of tradition remains stronger in Mexico, of course. Good? Bad? Do those traditions trap believers in some kind of belief bubble, tying them to the earth, to their small villages, preventing integration into the larger, more modern Mexico? Or do they provide succor and comfort amidst economic change and difficulties? A bit of both?
One part of tradition – the teachings of Jesus – we must hope remains; those teachings were stressed last Friday at the procession at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan, a shrine visited continuously by countless U.S. and Mexican citizens. Some of those teachings, love, mercy, caring for those in need, surely resonate in the hearts of many believers.
There are others who claim they “accept Christ,” perhaps some of them even Heads of State? But—through their actions and words—they do not seem to accept His teachings. Far better for good Catholics, good Christians, good men and women of all Faiths everywhere, to accept those ancient, wise teachings. Indeed, it may not be necessary to be completely orthodox, that is, to accept each and every specific item of belief. Jesus Himself preached against religious extremism.
Far better to accept – and follow – the teachings themselves. How foolish to claim only strict devotion to a holy person but to ignore His simple faith: “Love One Another as You Love Yourself.” Perhaps south Texas and Mexico can lead the way with this enlightened message of Pascua/Passover/Easter.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows a Viernes Santo ceremony in Iztapalapa, Mexico. Photo courtesy of El Horizonte.