One of the activities during our first full week here was to watch a movie about the traditions of Holy Week here in Antigua. Particularly grandiose is their Good Friday/Holy Saturday religious processions. They lump these all into one term: “Semana Santa.” During these processions, somewhere between 50 and 80 men (or middle-school aged kids, or women, depending on the procession) carry floats bearing larger-than-life-sized images of Jesus carrying his cross and Our Lady of Sorrows, among others. Throughout the streets are colorful carpets of colored sawdust called “aflombas” that are made by laying down layer after layer of the colored sawdust through large stencils with different designs. Some are relatively simple and others are extremely elaborate and include flowers and other plants. Many of the homeowners along the procession route create aflombas in the street in front of their houses the night before the procession (they will also decorate the fronts of their houses with adornments of varying degrees of extravagance). This is amazing because the aflombas will be destroyed by the procession as it passes by. As a pragmatic American, I was simply amazed by how much effort the Antiguans put into their annual Triduum remembrance.
Unfortunately, however, I was not in Antigua for Semana Santa to see this amazing annual event in person. Nonetheless, I will be able to experience other religious processions here in Antigua during my time here. I had one of those opportunities last Thursday. In the States, many Catholic parishes celebrate the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (a.k.a. Corpus Christi) with a Eucharistic procession, one that usually walks around the parish church and sometimes even goes out into the surrounding neighborhood. In Antigua, however, it’s bigger – though not as big as Semana Santa. One unique characteristic of the celebration here is that it lasts almost through the whole month of June. Through some weird tweak of liturgical calendars, each parish here in Antigua is allowed to celebrate the feast on a different day so that each of them can host their own procession without conflict with other parishes. The cathedral parish in Antigua was given the honor to be the first to hold their celebration (it kind of makes sense to give the Bishop first dibs…) and our school made the procession one of the "cultural activities" that it offered that week. The seminarians all opted to attend the mass also and so we had a full morning of activity, none of which included learning Spanish. The cathedral is not a very large church so we needed to get there early to get a seat. The stairs to the cathedral are covered with pine needles, which indicate that today is a special feast day. The church was decorated beautifully with many banners and flowers adorning its interior. The mass was celebrated by the Bishop with all of the solemnity that this feast deserves. Believe it or not, this level of solemnity also includes fireworks. Not in the church, of course, but outside the church. Needless to say I was a little startled when the first mortar shots were fired off during mass. This occurred a few more times during mass, particularly at the consecration. The Bishop is old and spoke nice and slow and so I almost understood his homily. After mass, the Blessed Sacrament was placed in the monstrance and the procession began. Led by what appeared to be a woman’s religious group (probably something akin to an “Altar and Rosary Society” in the States) carrying banners, the Blessed Sacrament made its way into the streets of Antigua. The Blessed Sacrament was followed by a small band that led the group of people in joyful songs along the way. These reminded me of the Psalm in which it speaks of a procession of the Arc of the Covenant (which represented the real presence of God for the Israelites) in which there were “dancers in the front” and “musicians coming last,” indicating the great joy that accompanied the procession.
Long strips of firecrackers were lit off in front of the procession. At one point I was a little put off by the fireworks, but soon thought it was pretty amazing that the Antiguans were willing to pull out all the stops to make a big show of the fact that the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ was making its way through the streets of their city in the form of the Blessed Sacrament. The procession made about four stops at different houses where the Blessed Sacrament entered for a short time. These all seemed to be private schools or hospitals. In the streets there were a few aflombas, though not nearly as many nor were they as elaborate as I suspect that there are for Semana Santa. Some of the house fronts were decorated and one block in particular strung decorations across the street. Many young children were dressed as angels, representing the angels that are always ministering to Jesus wherever He is. The procession wound its way back to the front of the cathedral and when the priest carrying the monstrance (multiple priests passed off the monstrance to each other during the procession) came to the door of the cathedral, he turned and gave benediction to all the people following him. The Blessed Sacrament was then returned to the altar and exposed for the remainder of the day for the faithful to adore.
Having spent a couple of weeks here, I was starting to get a little frustrated because I didn’t feel like I was getting a good sense of Latin American culture. Antigua caters to Western tourists, so it’s been difficult for me to break out of my comfort zone to experience the culture. That day I got my first real taste of the culture here in Guatemala and I enjoyed it thoroughly. This past weekend, we traveled to a famous pilgrimage site in Guatemala where they celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi (stay tuned for a post about that). This weekend, the parish of Our Lady of La Merced will host the “corpus” celebration. As I said, ‘tis the season to celebrate…
If you would like to see all of the pictures from the procession, click here. (Hopefully next time I´ll be able to figure out how to easily format these posts to include the pictures.) Thanks for your continued prayers.