16 April 2007

Stations of the Cross

I constantly struggle to find topics to write in my blog. When I began living in Guatemala, and every day I was learning something new and overwhelmed by people, geography, and history. After seven months, however, everyday things, instead of inspiring curiousity and reflection, have simply become everyday things. Washing dishes in a pila is done without thought, complex polite greetings and discussions are integrated into daily conversation, and your stomach becomes so accustomed to tortillas that you don't know how to eat without one in hand.
Of the two big religous holidays (Christmas and Easter), the Catholic Church has always claimed that Easter is the more important of the two, despite Europea and North American traditions of moving trees indoors, covering presents with shiny paper, and obnoxious music outshining an egg-laying rabbit. In Guatemala, they got it right. In addition, the related celebrations (Palm Sunday, The Last Supper, The Crucifixion, and the 40 days in the desert remembered as Lent) are celebrated, creating a 51-day season of religious remembrance.
Every Friday, as in the United States, The Stations of the Cross (known simply as The Procession) is/are celebrated in Guatemala. However, instead of practicing the stations within the walls of the church, each station is a place in the town, usually in front of the house of a member of the church. Various men of the church are selected to carry a large (roughly 8 feet by 10 feet) platform, on which a statue of Jesus, dressed in a crown of thorns and a cross, is carrying the cross. During Holy Week, the men wear bright purple robes (For those who don't know, purple is used by the Catholic Church to represent the sorrow of the suffering of Christ).
The stations are made out to resemble a funeral procession. Sad songs to the tune of dirges are sung, weeping and candlelight are used (candles are linked to funerals in Guatemala), the platform often borrows styling from caskets, and the men carrying it resemble pallbarrers at a funeral.
In general, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in Catholicism represent a fascinating paradox between joy and sorrow, victory and defeat, king and common criminal. The statue of Jesus is often dressed in kingly robes while wearing the crown of thorns and carrying a cross. The masses take the roles of both the saved and the murderers of Jesus during Holy Week, which in turn pair guilt and gratefulness within its participants. Anthropologists often link the ideas of crucifixion and resurrection with a cultural universal of death as a requisite for further life, but paradoxes found in Holy Week seem to go much further than most belief systems, connecting a much wider range of disparate ideas.
On Good Friday, a tradition in Guatemala is to make “carpets” on the streets, which the procession walk through. The carpets can take hours to make. They are made out of colored sawdust, flowers, and pine needles. Those of sawdust often use stencils to make drawings of religious symbols such as the Eucharist, crosses, roman soldiers, etc. As the procession walks through the street, the pieces of art are destroyed by those carrying the giant diorama of Jesus. During Holy Week, many processions occur, and the larger ones include a statue of Mary on a different platform following from a safe distance, can include Mary Magdalene, and can also include St. John on another platform, running around the simulated scene like a chicken with his head cut off (ironically it's a statue of St. John the Apostle, not St. John the Baptist, who was decapitated).
During the procession, the story of the Passion is recounted through the traditional 14 events marked by each station. Slight variations from the story I grew up hearing, however, do exist. For one, at the moment of Jesus' death, it is said that earthquakes, lightning, and unusual darkness fall, and the angry mob realizes that they just killed the Son of God. In addition, St. Joseph, Jesus' stepdad, supposedly helped pull Jesus down from the cross, who I was always told was dead before then. Other minor details were changed, such as “King of the Jews” wasn't written above him, but “King of Kings.” Though these differences are incredibly minor, I admit that I was surprised at the variations between stories told by the Catholic Church, despite their slightness.
I have a Jewish friend who wouldn't go to the processions because she found them to be very anti-Semitic. Though historically the execution of Jesus has been used as a reason to torment Jews, I never considered the Stations of the Cross particularly anti-Semitic, because the people of the church take the blame upon themselves as sinners for his death, not it to be the murder by an external group. I'd love to hear others' comments on the idea of the Stations as anti-Semitic.


Anonymous said...

I agreee that Catholics take the blame for Christ's death as a direct result ofall mankinds sins. Jesus died for ALL of our sins-not just because of the sins of the Jewish people. All are sinners-all are redeemed.

Joe said...

Good job, Andrew, about a Guatemala view point. Thank you

I am required to mention that this blog doesn´t reflect the opinions of the Peace Corps.