Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Stand still! Listen to the church bells. The funeral procession approaching. The fireworks announcing the beginning of a celebration. The sound of the band as a carnival procession approaches your street. Sometime I think I hear something invisible, something I can almost see. Perhaps the spirit, or what others have called the collective conscience or the ties of community bonds.

This invisible something becomes most powerful during certain celebratory events with great community participation. Events such as the celebration of Easter. As a non-Catholics I do not appreciate the religious symbolism and as a member of a secular, individualistic culture I do not fully grasp what is happening. But I do feel emotion rising in my chest as I follow along as a non-member. Following the Palm Sunday celebration with Jesus retaking the walk into the city of Jerusalem followed by his disciples, angels, incense burners and a large group of believers waving palm boughs, one senses a ritual being reenacted for yet another time and probably with many of the same community members involved. Then entering the church to see a full church standing, waving their palm boughs and repeating: Christ is King”, even the non-believer experiences something. What is this?
Observing the story of Jesus’ betrayal, the trial and then sentence by Pilot, the whipping and then the procession to Calvary, again one senses the importance of ritual and not a tourist performance. The actors are all local people and yet the performance is professional, the costumes believable even if you look closely and see the Roman helmets include old broom heads painted gold, the actors give no hint of over acting or of signaling that they feel foolish or are just playing. Then as you watch the procession proceeding with Jesus carrying a large cross and stopping at some of the ‘stations’ one begins to sense the enormity of the undertaking and the emotional power of ritual. Watching the three crosses being raised with Jesus bearing his crown of thorns one again has a strong sense of something mysterious just about to be revealed. But what is it?

During the procession of silence this invisible something again pulls at you. The procession begins as night is about to fall and among other things includes a large image of Jesus carrying the cross or on the cross and a large image of the grieving Mary. The participants in the procession also include young people carrying many of the ritual items – the hammer and nails used for the crucifixion, the dice and vinegar, the crown of thorns, white linens to wrap the body – a group of angels, many groups in barefeet and covering their heads in pointed hats with only holes for their eyes, and a drummer who beats out a mournful sound throughout the procession. Most are dressed in black and carry red candle lights. As the procession winds through the town everything appears to go quiet except for the haunting sound of the drum. On one block on a residential street, every household has adorned the street with pine needles, erected alters, decorated the sidewalks with bows and colorful hoop holding candles. What is it that is in the air? What do I feel?
The resurrection procession is quite different as it now includes a large image of Jesus rising from his burial place and an image of the local Virgin. The music on this occasion is happy and the procession is accompanied by the lighting of colourful fireworks as the group passes each church along the route. The procession culminates in a large outdoor mass and then the ritualistic blowing up of Judas (and perhaps a local politician or two). These last events appear to alleviate the burden of the past three days as people hold their ears during the Judas blasts and dodge the sparkling “foot chasers” let off from the fireworks attached to Judas.
One is drawn to all of these events in part by the spectacle itself but more importantly by the strong representation of collective emotion and community solidarity in paying for and supporting these events. It is the ritual that is important and not the spectacle. The ritual appears to tie people to their community, to their beliefs, and uses emotion to give a sense of identity and belonging. It reminds us of what has been lost in more secular countries where our attempts at widespread participation is turned into a commercial events and the police are required to deal with the drunks. We come away from secular events remembering only the spectacle and not feeling a strong attachment to the community or our neighbors.

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