SEMANA SANTA is the Spanish phrase for Holy Week, an important week in the life of Roman Catholics around the world and in Ajijic, where the people of this small town in Jalisco, Mexico, reenact the legend of Jesus and the events that led up to his demise. Not that I care much for the religion, but it happens that I am interested in the people and customs of small town Mexico, where I spent quite bit of time, and plan to spend even more time in retirement, coming up for me soon.
The week begins with the Sunday before Easter that is called Palm Sunday. According to legend, the son of the carpenter Joseph and his wife Maria, a man in his early thirties called Jesus of Nazareth (some called him the Son of God), came into town riding on a donkey. He was greeted by his followers with cheers and shouts of joy that their savior had arrived. Some of them waved palm leaves over his head, a custom I suspect in those days meant to honour people, and perhaps to provide some shade?
The country (at one point called Palestine) was occupied by the Roman army at the time, with a Roman governor put in place to rule the city Jerusalem. The Romans had their own religion with multiple gods, while the locals were following the rules as laid down by their forefather, Abraham. The local leaders were generally collaborating with the enemy, including the church leaders of that land, while protecting themselves and their positions. That attitude is nothing unusual throughout the world. For instance, during World War II the Roman Catholic pope collaborated with the German Nazi regimen that was invading country after country. That had the extermination of millions of vulnerable people as a result: the diaspora of Jewish people living in Europe, millions of mentally ill and disabled, the Roma (gypsies), and known homosexuals. Still today, the pope refuses to turn over the perpetrators (priests) of sexual abuse of children. However, the outcome of events long time ago, around 33 BC, when church leaders neglected to stand up for the innocent man, Jesus, had the birth of the largest religion in the world today as its result.
Jesus had been talking about some remarkable theories about himself and promised his followers a future kingdom that was to come soon. He clearly was opposing the practices of the indigenous church leaders–the ruling class of the religion that most locals adhered to. Jesus had also attracted the attention of the Roman occupiers, who saw that he was able to gather with his sermons large crowds of people who talked about miracles performed, with rumours spreading like an oil stain on the ocean that Jesus would save them from the Romans. Was this going to be a rebellion?
Palm Sunday is an evening event in Ajijic. About six at night, the residents of the main route of the event start cleaning their sidewalk and the street, with brooms and pails of water and the occasional hose. Around a half an hour later, a rickety pick-up truck comes by loaded up high beyond the wooden slats with fresh alfalfa hay and young men throw a few bales of hay in front of each house. The residents start spreading the hay and the photo shows the results. One is supposed not to walk on the hay until the actors and the crowds have passed. Within the hour, the hay gets collected and becomes food for the animals.
The procession starts at the Seis Equinas (six corners) neighbourhood, the oldest part of town with a reputation for authenticity and traditional customs. The priest first needs to bless the bouqets of palm fronts, frequent rosemary twigs and chamomile bushes that are sold for a few pesos along the route by local crafters (or their kids): beautiful bouquets interspersed with woven grass bows, twigs and grain stalks, often with a straw image of Jesus at its centre. The crowd gathers around the priest who blesses the people, and especially their artifacts, to take home and spread their good scents and spiritual powers at home for a few days. Then, the procession travels to the main church in the centre of the town close to the plaza: the donkey with Jesus up front with his disciples, followed by the believers. On arrival at the church, there is a mass for the practicing believers, outside the church while the sun sets.
Instead of mass, we choose to get an early start on food, and stroll to the plaza where local entrepreneurs in traditional costumes sell tamales, sopas, and other food at the stands. The town plaza is decorated with paper garlands that last just one day and will have disappeared the next morning. All apparently have a nice time, while bands take their turn playing on the band stand in the centre of the plaza, surrounded by tables full with visiting people, and the plaza looks fantastic.
On the following Thursday, the crowd of believers gathers on the edge of town at dusk, on the site that stands in the gardens of Gethsemane, to witness Jesus struggle with his conscience, anticipating his death. The actors do a good job, although the P.A. system has some challenges. The actor Jesus and the disciples have some conversations that are hard for me to follow in Spanish, although I get the drift (I was raised in a strict religious home).
Jesus gets arrested by Roman soldiers and the the crowd returns to the town them. Jesus gets dragged in front of the Jewish church leaders and the high priest (Caiaphas) who make fun of him and taunt Jesus who does not defend himself. As it was dark and I don’t have the equipment for making good stills of the theatrical scenes in the dark, the rest is left to your imagination. Alternatively, you might watch the videos and photos on line that are readily available if you type in the search box Passion Play in Ajijic.
I attended the next morning, on Good Friday, when the scenes take place in the church plaza, converted to a sort of palace of justice, where Jesus gets charged with treason. The trial takes place under the supervision of Pontious Pilates. The crowd gets a say as well, but by now, Jesus does not look like a king, meek and exhausted, in a dirty robe and soft spoken. The priests and the crowd denounce him and yell that he should be crucified. Following the trial, the cross is hoisted on the actor and a real crown of thorns gets pushed on the actor’s head. ( I did not take photos, as I previously had a blog post about this part.
The actors, crowds and believers now return to the site of the Gethsemane garden that in this scene stands in for the Golgotha hill. This time, I witness the crucifixion (with ropes only)l last time I found the scenes too realistic and I gave up right then.
The actors do a believable job; at some moments I watch with a lump in my throat. The crowds are quiet and respectful; the atmosphere is indeed holy. I have seen that this community effort (with half the town volunteering) year after year, brings the community together. It is a time of togetherness and family reunions.The diaspora of Mexicans living in the US and elsewhere try to go home for Easter. Of course eating and drinking is also part of it, and always music.
I resolved to read the Passion story again once back home, just to read the details of the political maneuvering that took place, so long ago, the fickle crowds that one day want to crown a prince and the next day kill him. The tension between the goals of the oppressors, trying to avoid a rebellion, and the kowtowing church leaders and their struggle for survival, sacrificing an innocent man, while playing to the crowd, is like a Shakespeare drama. The interactions of Jesus with his relatives and his followers, the disciples, and in his trial, lots happening, all with interesting dialogues. Betrayal, love, denunciation, abandonment, grief and death, all the elements of a great story are there. Good for authors to read the story again.
Then back home, I discovered a new series on TV that tells exactly that story, called AD The Bible Continues, that shows the events and the crucifixion and continues with the developments of this Story. In my view the actor playing Jesus is altogether too handsome and beautiful and looks more like a Hollywood story, but to each its own….