The winds of excitement loped across the Spanish mountains and valleys in long legged leaps.
“ Semana Santa (Holy Week) is coming!” they shouted. “Stop your work, prepare your heart. Fast and pray.”
My host family explained to me that the week would be filled with reenactments of the last happenings before Jesus’ death. The town would be bursting at its stitched seams.
Intrigued, I joined the eager crowd on Sunday, that first day of Easter week. Some had waited where I stood for hours to see ‘their’ Virgin pass by. Their anticipation was catching, and as soon as the first waves of music curled around the corner I found myself pushing and peering forward as much as the next person.
At first all I saw were priests, dressed suspiciously like Klu Klux Klan members; covered in long white robes from head to toe, with a colored pointed hood and only their facial apertures showing. I leaned forward more, eager to see what came next, my 35mm Konica grasped tightly in my sweaty hand.
A wooden Jesus appeared, kneeling in prayer in the garden. He was carried on the shoulders of some twenty to thirty barely visible penitents; such was the amount of cloth hanging over the sides of the float. Huge drops of blood poured from his agonized brow as his ‘friends’ lay sleeping. After he passed, the crowd fell silent. I didn’t know why until I saw that ‘Mary’ was coming. Long poles around her held up the canopy that protected her head. Cloth flowed down her back and fell softly over the rear of the float. Everything shimmering bit of gold, silver and rich embroidery shouted of royalty. She swayed with each slow step of her bearers until she stopped in front of me.
“Look at all of the flowers and crucifixes around her,“ my host mother whispered in my ear. I tried to move a little closer, but the crowd was like a cheap florist’s mixed bouquet - too tightly wrapped together. The float was a bed of colorful flora; precisely placed crosses of silver, wood and gold atop.
“That statue is La Dolorosa (Mary in pain). Look at her face. Oh how beautiful!” She crossed herself and wiped away her tears, commiserating with the Virgin in her grief.
I could hear my breathing; silence seemed the only fitting honor we could give to Jesus’ mother. She was blessed among women, yet suffered greatly, yet believed.
A tenor’s voice broke the silence. Puzzled, I looked to where the resonant sound came from. Up on a balcony a man was singing a flamenco love song to La Dolorosa, his wife beaming with pride beside him.
The crowd cheered the serenade, and then, as the effigy returned to its slow motion forward, the street around it filled with adulating worshippers. A horde of hands and lips tried to move closer to touch or kiss the passing sculpture, as if in doing so some of Mary’s blessedness would come into their lives.
My gaze swung to a small group of women walking barefooted behind the float. For some reason they were allowing their feet to experience pain on the cobbled way, as a personal demonstration of penance for their sins. Their legs and the incense bearers’ laden hands swung in time with the orchestra’s sad religious music.
Without knowing why, I found myself caught up in a glut of emotion. As a Protestant I had repeatedly seen my parents’ scorn for the religious icons of the Catholics, yet being there in the middle of such passion, mockery was finally set aside and a degree of understanding attained.
These women understood the pain of a mother. These men understood the pain of a woman. Mary’s son was going to die, and she would never hold her firstborn again.
By Easter Sunday afternoon it was all over.
Emotions had unwound. Tourists slowly began to peter out, more disappearing with each scheduled country village bus. The traveling food vans pulled their metal window covers down, shutting off the server's smile and the smells of fried batter, chorizo and powdered sugar. Each statue was placed with great care back in its church’s chosen corner.
And I? I placed my thoughts and emotions back behind my hard exterior, but I knew that God had softened me within. My heart had been temporarily opened to the beautiful, the spiritual, the wonder of Christian symbolism. It would never be closed quite as judgmentally tight again.
To see some photos of semana santa in Seville, Spain, copy and paste this link into your browser address window http://www.semana-santa.org/ and then click on fotografias.
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