Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Trials in Taxco: Semana Santa

Taxco is world famous for its unique Holy Week pageant and processions.  Each night you can be transported back to medieval times in a beautiful hillside city that feels medieval in itself.

I've taken a liking to Holy Thursday's procession.  It isn't a religious parade.  For spectators it is a theatrical presentation that transpires in the atrium of beautiful Santa Prisca Church, the plaza, surrounding streets, and the Church of St. Nicholas.

The 'stage' on which the pageant is presented is amorphous.  Though the main plaza is packed with spectators, necessary space always opens when needed by the actors.  Most of the roles in the central pageant are filled by residents of Taxco who have been practicing and memorizing their lines for months.  However the primary players, Jesus and his disciples (excepting Judas), are images who spend most of the year inside Santa Prisca.  For the event they are carried on floats borne on the shoulders of members of cofradias who care for the images throughout the year. 

If you chose to attend, I suggest you first read the script.  Most likely you have a copy in your very own home.  The script for Thursdays is in Mark 14.  Showtime is 7:30 pm beginning with a reading -- over the loudspeaker system -- of that same chapter. Towards the end of the reading Roman soldiers begin roving through the plaza. They mingle with the crowd searching for Jesus until Judas Iscariot shows up carrying his bag of coins. Judas leads the soldiers into the Garden of Gethsemane, kissing Jesus on the cheek as a way of identifying him to the soldiers.  The soldiers tie his wrists, blindfold him, and take him away as prisoner.    From a safe distance the ten disciples follow.   Peter leaves the garden alone, following the soldiers and their prisoner at an even greater distance. 
Jesus is carried through the winding streets to prison -- in this case the church of St. Nicholas.  There a vigil is held through the night. 

The Garden of Gethsemane is set up in the atrium of Santa Prisca.  It is a temporary garden with flowers and vegetation creating a sweet-scented enclosure where, by the time he is arrested, Jesus has been praying for hours.  He has been visited by hundreds of people -- local residents and town visitors who patiently wait in line to be in the presence of Christ.

If you know the story you can follow the play, however it is difficult to get a view of the whole event.  Most in the ‘audience’ only get glimpses of portions of what is going on.  As in St. Peter's Square in Rome where there are only two spots where all the columns appear to line up, in Taxco there is only one place from which you can see Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, see Judas give him the kiss of betrayal,  see his arrest, and at the same time look down from above on what is going on in the plaza.   Let's make this into a geocache type event. I hope to see you at that place.  The layout of the Garden of Gethsemane is the clue.  

The re-enactment of Jesus' arrest is not the only thing going on in Taxco on Thursday night.  Semana Santa  is the close of Lent, a time of repentance.  There are three cofradias of visible penitents in Taxco.  The first you will see are encruzados leaving the side gate of Santa Prisca. They are shirtless, barefoot, hooded, wearing black skirts that nearly reach the ground and secured by a coarse rope wrapped around and around their waist as a belt.  Their arms are held out like Jesus on the cross and tied to heavy bundles of blackberry branches covered with thorns.  The bundles, borne on the pentitent’s bare shoulders, are as long as the encruzado is tall, weigh 30 kilos or more, and are at least 30 cm in diameter.  Hot wax from thick candles drips over their hands.  The procession moves and every twenty or thirty paces they take a rest. Helpers may relieve them of a bit of the weight but not the thorns digging into their shoulders.  Other penitents, flagelantes, dressed like the encruzados, carry small but heavy wooden crosses.  They also carry a 'discipline’ and periodically kneel on the ground and self flagellate, creating bloody wounds on their backs.  A third group of penitents, animas, are mostly women who are hooded and dressed in black, walking bent over at the waist so their faces face the ground.  They drag chains wrapped around their legs.   

I follow the procession to the Church of St. Nicolas where one can see the first encruzados finish their penitential walk and witness the beginning of Jesus’ trial.  I then retrace my steps to the zocalo and slowly walk down Juarez Street to the main highway.   Following that route you'll encounter dozens of processions from nearby parishes, each carrying their own image of Christ on the Cross and accompanied by members of that particular community with penitents interspersed.  Some images are on large floats carried by dozens of people, usually accompanied by bands.  From a distance you can hear the haunting chains of penitents who sometimes walk under the floats dragging their chains. 

Each year the ranks of the penitents grow and although it can be disturbing to watch the extremes of penitence, it provides a unique insight into the character of this silver-mining city and the deep religious fervor of Mexico. 

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