In Mexico, Easter and the festivals and holy days surrounding it are times for big celebrations. Holy Week, Semana Santa, from Palm Sunday to Easter, is particularly important.
For Mexican families there are really two parts: the religious celebrations, and spring vacation from school for the kids. Mexican schools give a 2 week holiday, and many families take a week off somewhere away from home. So the Lake Chapala area has both parts, with many families coming to Chapala to enjoy the lake, and religious celebrations that center on the communities of each of the lakeside Catholic churches. These are big and crowded at places like Chapala and Ajijic, and small, more personal, in places like San Antonio Tlayacapan and Riberas del Pilar (where we live).
Much of the story for Carol and myself is like our life in India, where amazing things just seemed to happen all around us, so we carried cameras everywhere and took lots of photos. Usually we didn’t know much about what we were seeing. So we would return from an outing where we took photos and decided to write about it on the blog. We learned that here in Mexico, Easter, the "big day," is a quiet day dedicated to home and family, as is Christmas day. The more public celebration occurs on the big days before Easter, including Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
Palm Sunday in San Antonio Tlayacapan
Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) celebrates the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem. We heard that a Procession would occur in San Antonio Tlayacapan, a smaller village near us. We went toward the village church to see what this ritual looked like.
Special masses are held, dedicated to the blessing of palm fronds. These fronds are often woven into crosses and other designs, sometimes quite intricate, and brought by parishioners to have holy water sprinkled on them. They are later hung up in houses for good luck, or buried to preserve crops. Ashes from these palms are used for Ash Wednesday the next year. The palm branch is traditionally a symbol of joy and victory. In Christianity, it is a sign of victory over the flesh and the world.
Here is a girl holding typical woven palm frond. This weaving is similar to an older tradition in Spain. Mexico largely follows the Spanish traditions for Easter.
As one element of the series of Easter passion plays, a procession, always described as “triumphant,” goes through the streets of San Antonio Tlayacapan on its way to the church. Jesus is riding a donkey, accompanied by several disciples. The donkey symbolizes his entry into Jerusalem as the humble Prince of Peace, not as a war-waging king, who would have ridden a horse.
Here is a short video showing the Palm Sunday procession.
People follow the procession. Many are carrying palm fronds.
The village church.
The service inside the church.
Good Friday in Riberas del Pilar
Good Friday (Viernes Santo) is commonly reenacted in passion plays throughout Mexico. These passion plays usually go through the standard 14 Stations of the Cross that tell the Christian story of Jesus and Easter.
The 14 Stations of the Cross
- Jesus is condemned to death
- Jesus carries his cross
- Jesus falls the first time
- Jesus meets his mother
- Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross
- Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
- Jesus falls the second time
- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
- Jesus falls the third time
- Jesus is stripped of his garments
- Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross
- Jesus dies on the cross
- Jesus is taken down from the cross (Deposition or Lamentation)
- Jesus is laid in the tomb.
All of the Stations of the Cross are acted out in every passion play performed at most Catholic churches throughout Mexico. Talk about a unifying tradition! Throughout Mexico, I bet this story is as well known, as, say, the Ramayana in India. 90% of Mexicans are Catholic (although in Mexico, Catholicism is characterized as "wide, but not deep"), and Semana Santa is maybe the biggest Catholic celebration, so most Mexicans have been exposed to the story.
Carol went out with a friend to explore the Good Friday activities. We had seen a small procession – a small group accompanying a man carrying a cross, walking on the street in front of our house – so Carol thought there might be something happening again on our street. Indeed there was.
She saw this group coming towards our house and grabbed her camera. She had no idea that this would be the reenactment of the Stations of the Cross. By the time she encountered the procession, it already seemed to be well along, with Jesus carrying the cross. If we had only known, we could have seen the earlier stations, including the judgment of Pontius Pilate.
Here is a video of the procession. Note that it shows Station 5: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross.
"As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus."
Here is Jesus with his cross, surrounded by Roman soldiers, with leather armor and bronze helmets.
Following Jesus are his followers and his mother, Mary, with a blue shawl over her head.
Station 7: Jesus falls for the second time.
Helmeted Roman guards.
One of the two common criminals that accompanied Jesus to the crucifixion grounds.
Jesus on his knees.
This is Veronica, who earlier wiped Jesus’ face. (Station 6: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus)
Veronica (later “St. Veronica”) is identified as a bleeding woman in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew (19.20), which reads:
"And behold, a woman which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years came behind him and touched the hem of his garment, for she said within herself,
`If I may touch his garment I shall be made whole.’
But Jesus . . . when he saw her said, ‘Daughter, be of good comfort, thy faith hath made thee whole."
Jesus carries his load.
A babe in arms getting her first exposure to the Good Friday passion play.
Here is a nasty Roman guard whipping Jesus to keep him going.
All of these roles are assigned to members of the Church congregation that is hosting the Passion Play. I wonder what it is like to be selected as the one who whips Jesus?
All the Roman guards and soldiers carry their Roman spears.
Station 9: The third fall.
Jesus, carrying the cross, with the crown of thorns on his head.
Carol and her friend Clare assumed that the procession would end up in San Antonio Tlayacapan, the same village where we had seen the Palm Sunday event.
But it turned out that this procession arrived at the corner from Calle San Luis and Calle San Lucas, everyone turned right, toward to Templo Catolico on the corner of the Carreterra. Later we realized that perhaps every neighborhood church conducts its own version of this Semana Santa ritual.
This photo below shows an event that was not part of the "Stations.” This is, we think, Judas, hanging from a tree.
We learned that the next day of this Semana Santa, Holy Saturday, is celebrated by an event called “the Burning of Judas.” Idols of "Judas" are hung from trees and burned in effigy. Evil spirits are burned. Unpopular politicians are burned. This year in many places in Mexico the festivities included effigies of Donald Trump.
I hope this man playing Judas in the photo above doesn’t have to hang for another full day. I think Judas is probably a worse part to play than the Roman soldier with the whip.
Below, one of the disciples of Jesus pulls out his cell phone to snap a photo.
One of the criminals is being placed on his cross.
They dig it in, so the cross won’t fall over.
Here comes the next criminal. They tie him to the cross, then raise it up.
Criminal on the cross, with a "priest" in the foreground.
Station 10: Jesus is stripped of his clothes.
"When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.
"Let’s not tear it," they said to one another. "Let’s decide by lot who will get it."
Now they take Jesus to his cross.
Jesus walks by the other crosses with the criminals.
Now they tie Jesus to the cross, and lift it up.
This is the start of Station 11: Jesus’ crucifixion.
All three crosses are up.
The cast acts out the crucifixion.
Important are “Last Seven Words”: The seven sayings attributed to Jesus while on the cross.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do
Today you will be with me in paradise
Behold your son: behold your mother
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
It is finished
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit
Below is a very short video of the last of the Seven Words – in Spanish:
Padre, en tus manos encomiendo mi espíritu (Father, into your hands I commit my spirit)
The three crosses.
Station 12: Jesus dies on the cross.
"Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last."
Now, having said the Seven Words, Jesus’ head drops to his chest. He has died.
A boy sits at the foot of one of the crosses.
Now comes Station 13: Jesus is taken down from the cross (called the Deposition or Lamentation)
Matthew 27:57-59 (NIV)
"As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus.
Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.
Joseph took the body…"
"Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth …”
Mother Mary is with her dead son.
Station 14: Jesus’ body is carried to the tomb.
Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb."
They carry the body to the tomb.
The Passion Play is over, until next year. The Easter celebration will come to its conclusion with a special Easter Mass held at each Catholic church throughout Mexico.
Here is one of the “Roman Soldiers” holding his son.
This day, this celebration, is notable to me for the way in which the community is involved. We saw many such festivals in India where many people were directly involved. It seems to be the same here, too. These celebrations have a powerful function in bringing people together. As such, they are a precious part of Mexican life.