Of all the liturgical extravaganzas in the church year, Semana Santa (Holy Week) takes pride of place. And no one celebrates Semana Santa like the Hispanic world. So I was building up my knee calluses in anticipation of some hard-core churchgoing while I was in Mérida. Since a church is rarely more than a couple blocks away, this was not overly taxing.
Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) is the official start of Semana Santa. That Sunday, I opted for mass in San Ildefonso, the soaring, white cathedral on the central plaza (the zócalo). San Ildefonso is one of the oldest churches in North America (who knew?) and, like many other public structures, is built on the ruins of the original inhabitants’ sacred structures—the Maya, in this case. As usual, the conquerors also recycled the ancient stones into the new construction.
The interior of San Ildefonso is clean and spacious, partly due to the white stone and partly to the fact that a lot of the fancy gewgaws had been ripped out during the Mexican Revolution early in the 20th Century, leaving it far simpler than most Mexican churches, but more appealing to my northern aesthetic.
The zócalo is always full of folks lingering, loitering, snacking, visiting, but this Palm Sunday morning, the space in front of the church was full of vendors selling all things palm along with other festive treats. (Hard-boiled quail eggs, for example. Delicious, tiny snacks.)
Following Palm Sunday, the liturgical season holds its breath until Holy Thursday, when the show shifts into high gear. Holy Thursday is celebrated with a special mass, which is notable for the foot-washing ceremony. Several (usually twelve) parishioners are corralled, and the priest ceremonially washes each person’s foot (singular—just one foot) in remembrance of Jesus’s actions during the Last Supper. It also reinforces the servant role of the priest. (The priesthood is an impossible job, and the guys who do it well are heroic, all the bad press notwithstanding. Not only do they have to wash peoples’ feet on Holy Thursday, but they are always and forever on-call at the most intense crossroads of people’s lives.)
I’ve been chosen to be the washee a couple of times, and it’s embarrassing. To begin with, feet, especially when they’re well-used as mine are, aren’t things of beauty. They have unique and often unappealing knobs and bumps, corns and calluses. Then, you have to navigate the socks conundrum—to wear or not to wear? Struggling to put damp feet into socks—or into shoes if you opt for no socks—in front of a churchful of onlookers is a lesson in humility.
This Holy Thursday I went to mass at the small but historic and pretty Companía de Jesus de la Tercera Orden, just down from my hotel. The place was packed, as are all the churches in this part of the world. The priest was a feisty, older guy in a wheelchair, which made the logistics of getting up and down the altar steps a bit challenging, to say the least. The people handled it with aplomb–some strong guys hoisted the wheelchair up and down as the moment required.
Feet were duly washed with the chosen parishioners sitting on a high chair so the priest could reach them. Said feet were also kissed, which is a step beyond the job description in the North.
After mass, the crowd poured into the front courtyard where tapas were laid out by the church ladies. This was a delightful departure from my white-bread experience. We just go home and get our own snacks after Holy Thursday mass.
The next day (Good Friday) was steamy as only the Yucatán does heat. I wasn’t sure what was on the agenda, but noon is the customary time for churchy stuff to begin, so I headed back to San Ildefonso.
Branches of a bushy-looking plant were everywhere. I was told that it was la ruda. Rue. A bitter herb symbolic of the Passion. People carried it throughout the procession and tried to touch a certain statue of Jesus in the cathedral.
Good Friday involves observances like Stations of the Cross, veneration of the cross, receiving the Eucharist. Stuff like that. It’s the only day during the year that there is no mass celebrated anywhere in the world.
In the Hispanic world, Stations of the Cross involves processing with statues and a cross through the streets where prayers are said at various stops (the “stations”). After wending maybe a mile or more through town, the procession ended in another church, where the crowd of a couple hundred squeezed in for the rest of the Good Friday service.
Finally, after dark on Saturday, the most ancient and traditional of all the (many) liturgies begin—the Easter Vigil—the first mass of Easter. This involves all the pomp and circumstance of robes, incense, candles, genuflect, sit-kneel-stand, choir and bells. Every year, it’s an extravaganza at whatever level the local church can manage, whether a few quavery voices in a makeshift choir in the village where I live now or the million -pipe organ and professional choir I witnessed in a New York City church.
Rightly done, the Easter Vigil mass lasts about 3 hours. For reasons I don’t remember now, however, I didn’t go to the Easter Vigil in Merida, but to the celebratory albeit low-key mass on Easter morning. The zócalo was buzzing. Food vendors lined up around the periphery. Crowds of people dressed in their best squeezed into the cathedral.
Other than the sense that the entire town was observing Semana Santa, most of the Holy Week rituals and prayers were recognizable to me. Our northern celebrations are a private affair within each local church. There is no sense of an entire town turning out to celebrate the liturgical season together. Because in the US, we don’t. If Easter is observed at all, it’s about bunnies and baskets, eggs and jelly beans.
I enjoyed my Easter experience in Mexico. It felt authentic and devout. It also felt familiar—there was a universality to the liturgy that shouldn’t have surprised me.