Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A shockingly good Good Friday

We frequently participate in recurring events despite the fact that we know how they will transpire.  We go to favorite Shakespeare plays knowing the whole story in advance.  The same could be said about the passion plays enacted throughout the world last week. We attend knowing how it turns out. 

Holy Week's well-attended church services feature familiar hymns and scripture readings. There are rarely any changes.   We find comfort in knowing, interest in understanding things we hadn't been aware of before, and pride in noticing subtle changes.  Very occasionally there is a major change in the program and it sticks in our mind.  Such was the case thirty years ago at Good Friday's mass held in Cuernavaca's cathedral -- an event now honored each year.

On April 17, 1981, Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo entered the cathedral sanctuary from the courtyard of the 16th century monastery, and stopped at the intersection of the aisles as was his custom.  From this vantage he told his congregation that the Good Friday mass, about to begin, might last three or four hours.  Recognizing that some might not have that amount of time available to spend with him, he asked that those people leave.  He said the doors would be locked and once locked, those inside would not be allowed to leave until the ceremony was over. Those who were late would not be allowed to enter.  Don Sergio told us that access to restrooms would be available but added that sneaking off to the restroom would not be a way to leave the cathedral. All exits would be locked.  He didn't have to worry about word getting out--1981 was well before twitter, facebook or even cell phones.

Some people did leave.  Only when the doors had been locked did he tell us he was going to carry out an excommunication ceremony.  I had not been to one previously nor have I been to one since.  

The bishop talked about the severity of excommunication, what those who were excommunicated would have to do to resume communion with the Church, and what would befall those who participated in the sacrament of communion while excommunicated. 

The liturgy was indeed long, and finally after a couple of hours Bishop Mendez Arceo proceeded to excommunicate all torturers in the Diocese of Cuernavaca -- the only area over which he held authority, and whose boundaries are the same as those of the State of Morelos.  He decreed that anyone who tortured another human being was hereby excommunicated -- any type of torturing, be it of prisoners or family violence.   He proclaimed "Torture is one of the most serious offenses against the lives, integrity, and dignity of the least of our brethren.  It is especially egregious when committed by the authorities, charged  to protect, promote, and contribute to the life and dignity of citizens, using  the very means of force the public gives them to ensure citizen safety and respect.  Torture is a grave betrayal of the confidence which the people invest in their authorities."

He proceeded to further stun his congregation by excommunicating all people who are aware of torturing going on, could stop it, and chose to do nothing.  Without naming names, we in the congregation knew he had just excommunicated the Morelos governor, municipal presidents, and members of the police forces!  It made news around the world.  

Upon his death in 1992, the Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation was founded to continue his legacy and promote the cause of human rights.  Each year since, the foundation has given an award that has grown in national prestige based on the work of its recipients.  The awards ceremony is held on a Saturday close to the anniversary of the excommunication ceremony. This year it will be May 7.  

A morning forum, Challenges Faced by Contemporary Social Movements, will start at 9:30 am in a meeting room accessed through the 16th century monastery on the cathedral grounds. The morning meeting is followed by lunch provided for all participants.  

At 3:30 pm the awards ceremony will be held in the open chapel, the oldest standing Spanish building in the western hemisphere.  2011 winners are The Defenders of the Rio Verde in Paso de la Reina, Oaxaca, and Norma Librada Ledezma Ortega of Chihuahua.  Certificates will be presented to prize winners by 2010 awardees.  Speakers in the forum and at the awards ceremony are nationally and internationally known and respected spokespeople for human rights. 

There is no charge for participation in the forum, for lunch, or or the awards ceremony.  It is a wonderful opportunity to gain first hand knowledge of human rights issues, meet those who are actively working on their behalf, gain an insight into the legal recognition and guarantees of human rights as well as being able to visit parts of the cathedral normally not open to visitors.  It is a compound included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Ruta de los Conventos.  I hope to see you there. 

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. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Experiencing Cuicuilco's pyramid

Cuicuilco's main pyramid is quite different from most Mesoamerican pyramids.  Two differences are apparent at first sight:  a round floorplan and, with the exception of a central core of stone, its construction of mud and adobe. 

In the 1920s-30s, archeologists used a poorly regarded archeological tool -- dynamite -- to blast their way through the ten meter thick lava flow.  They claim to have done their dynamiting carefully; using small charges and calculating where they expected to find ground level.  Fortunately, they did not destroy the ramp or stairway going up the front of the building.  

Once they reached original ground level, leaving what looks like a crescent-shaped moat around the base of the pyramid (which you can see if follow the path to the onsite museum) they tunneled into the center of the building in search of an earlier building on the same spot.  The mouth of the tunnel is still barely visible; eight decades of erosion have almost obliterated it.

No earlier building was found.  Instead, archeologists discovered the pyramid is an earthen mound covered with adobe bricks and plaster on the outside.  They also realized that the building grew in size every year.  Annual torrential summer downpours probably transformed the sloping adobe outside surface into an array of gullies -- unsightly for a temple dedicated to Huehueteotl, the important god of fire and volcanoes.  Each year, at the beginning of the dry season, the pyramid received a new layer of adobe plaster and, where needed, adobe bricks.  It grew in diameter just as a tree grows with tree rings; it also grew in height with a new layer of adobe plaster at the top.  

At the top of the pyramid -- accessible via the ramp on the front of the building -- new altars would periodically be built on top of old ones.  Archeological digs allow us to see five altars at the top of the pyramid.  The oldest is at the bottom of a pit, surrounded by vertical planks.  Keep in mind that, when it was in use, it was at the top of the pyramid.  Above it are two altars made of adobe, the second of which was protected in the 1960s, with volcanic stone.  

The fourth altar shows a dramatic change in the style of construction.  Its core of mud is surrounded by a wall of river-smoothed stone that was probably slathered with adobe plaster on the outside.  Its appearance would have been the same as the previous altars, but it would prove longer lasting.  From then on other structures were probably made of stone instead of adobe.  

The riverstone altar has been taken apart and the plan is that it will eventually be restored -- hence the numbers painted on each stone.  The fifth altar, at the very top of the pyramid and having been exposed to the elements for centuries, is the most damaged,.

What was once a small domed room is the only other building you can see in the Cuicuilco Archeological Park.  You pass it on your walk towards the museum.   It was named the “Kiva” by Byron Cummings, an Arizonan, who discovered it in 1923.  Had it been discovered by someone from anywhere other than Arizona or New Mexico, it probably would have been more properly named the temazcal, a Nahuatl name for a steam bath and a common building at Mesoamerican archeological sites.  What is unusual about the one at Cuicuilco is that it is built on one of the stepped landings of the wedding cake-shaped pyramid, not at original ground level.  It is perched ten meters up the side of the building -- probably an indication that it was built after the lava flow that destroyed the ancient city of Cuicuilco.  

In a temazcal, rocks, previously heated in fire, are set in the middle of the small room; once all participants are seated and a blanket has sealed the doorway, cold water is poured over the rocks, creating steam. If the steam bath is for cleansing, hot steam is an effective way to bathe using very little water.  If for medicinal purposes there are applications of poultices and teas made from roots, bark, leaves or fruit,. Temazcals were also used for the purification of the bodies of those who were going to participate in a religious ceremony. Because of its location, this temazcal was probably used for the latter purpose.  

Imagine the itinerant Cuicuilcans -- who had fled as lava flowed into their city -- returning, hoping to salvage something of what had been their bountiful farms and bustling lakeside city, only to find that Huehueteotl had destroyed everything except his temple -- now surrounded by the blackness and bleakness of a lava field.  

They needed a steam bath for the ritual purification of the priests who would be carrying out ceremonies for pilgrimages at the top of the now miraculous temple -- saved by the god himself.  The temazcal was probably built on what appeared to be the only soil, but was really one of the landings of the stepped pyramid.  Stare at the inside of the small room and red designs will start appearing to you.   Painted with iron oxide, red lasts longer than other colors.  Some of those designs may date from the time of Christ, set in a city founded contemporaneously with Jerusalem.
On a more contemporary note:  for readers in Cuernavaca, tomorrow at 5 pm a National March for Peace and Justice, led by poet Javier Sicilia, will walk from the Glorieta de la Paz to the Zocalo.  I hope to see you there.