If you’re a practicing Catholic you’re familiar with processions. Priests, deacons, lectors, and altar servers process toward the altar at Mass. You also may have walked and prayed in Eucharistic processions for special occasions like Corpus Christi or Holy Thursday. Maybe you’ve even participated in a procession for a May Crowing outside the Mass, but the processions we’ve witnessed this week in Antigua, Guatemala take liturgical processions to a whole new level.
We saw similar processions in the past, but we’re not the same people who left Guatemala 27 years ago. After years of study, formation in, and practice of the Catholic faith we’ve returned and submerged ourselves in some of the most elaborate and meaningful liturgical processions the Catholic Church celebrates anywhere.
We watch with wonder and awe as thousands of Guatemalan Catholic faithful of every strata of society embody in meaningful, beautiful and colorful ways devout prayer, joyful sacrifice, disinterested self-gift, generosity, redemptive suffering and penance.
On Holy Thursday as we wait outside a church for a procession to begin my first interaction is with a non-Catholic tourist who asks if I am Catholic and notes that the celebration will have deeper meaning for me because of my faith. She discloses rather wistfully, “I wish it had deeper meaning for me.”
I am soon immersed in the reality of families pressing in on every side; men, women, and children waiting for two heavy wooden platforms, called “andas” to exit the church. Doug and I stand in the second row behind a barricade where we have a decent view. A father and son, both dressed in purple are on one side. On the other side is a multi-generational family. A boy of about eight who’s with them stands on a plastic stool they brought along so he doesn’t miss out.
Drums and pipes, horns and bells ring out and the procession begins. The first Anda is carried by about 70 men. The strain of the weight they shoulder is visible on their faces. On the anda stands a statue of Jesus as a boy playfully holding a dove while St. Joseph works behind him at his carpenter’s bench. In the center is a much larger statue of a bloody Jesus crowned with thorns carrying his cross . Behind him, in a wooden chair, sits a smaller statue of Mary at a spinning wheel where she is turning wool into thread.
“Why”, the tourist wants to know, “are scenes from Jesus’ childhood depicted along with a scene from his passion?” I fumble my way through an explanation, pointing to a pamphlet that says the scriptural theme for this year’s procession is The Finding of Jesus in the Temple and that not just his passion and death, but Jesus’ whole life has meaning.
As I speak it strikes me that Mary knew how I felt when my son was missing. Evan was lost for only two days, not three before they found his body in the river. But I don’t have the capacity to process the emotional impact of this thought.
The second anda depicts a lamb in the foreground and a much larger statue of Mary stands in the center. Behind her are two columns and a doorway representing a temple. Mary is weeping profusely and the look on her face one of confusion as if she cannot comprehend her present suffering.
The Mary anda is carried by women and through their movements I’m caught up in their struggle and pain. In choreographed steps accompanied by drums and horns they bend their knees and sway until it looks as if they will be crushed by the weight they bear. Then they step backward a few feet before heaving the anda higher and standing upright, move forward again. As I watch I am lost in the suffering and struggle of women the world over. I weep for women who have lost their children, or whose children are imprisoned, women whose family members have starved or died in war, women who are slaves in their own homes, women everywhere who cannot comprehend their present suffering. I weep as they bow low beneath the weight and I breathe relief when they stand and keep moving forward.
The next morning I read (in Spanish) the brief scripture meditations from pamphlets on the two scenes depicted in the procession. One says that the account of Mary losing Jesus for three days is a preparation for the three days Jesus will be buried in the tomb before his resurrection. Though Mary didn’t understand it at the time, God uses the incident to prepare her, strengthening her faith in her Son’s ability to hear and obey the voice of his Father.
Of course it’s not the same, but I see a correlation in my own experience. Those hours when they couldn’t find Evan gave us a little time to prepare for the too-shocking-to-imagine possibility of his death. When word finally came that they’d found his body, the grief was still devastating, but it wasn’t the sudden debilitating shock so many other families have endured.
Meditating on Mary’s sorrows, particularly the loss of her Son on the way to Jerusalem and what she suffered at the foot of the cross brings me deep consolation. I hope my description of the processions we witnessed on Holy Thursday is an encouragement to someone reading.
May suffering women everywhere come to know the hope that radiates in Mary, a hope that is ultimately only found in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
. . .and his mother kept all these things in her heart.Luke 2:51b
4 Comments Add yours
… I am encouraged. Thank you, Lani. God bless you always.
Oh Asela, what a privilege it is for me to have you read and take some solace in what I’ve written! Thank you for letting me know.
Thanks lani. Your words are always inspiring.
My parents lost a son, Matthew Giannola in 1975, Matt was 20 years old. A sudden industrial death. I watched my grief stricken mother……As I read your beautiful words, I can relate. Matt’s death led to a wonderful transformation and renewal of faith for all the Giannola family. Your words are inspiring and deeply felt.