At 3:30 Thursday morning and by the light of the full moon as the rooster crowed a couple times, my husband and I threw on our sweaters and jeans, stumbled out into the quiet streets of El Calvario and into our car. We knew we were taking a chance by driving into La Antigua Guatemala on Viernes Santo, Good Friday, we might even have to walk home, but not knowing what to expect our car was our life raft. We were, however, determined to catch a glimpse of the Romans in their full armor and horses at the entrance to the city and retrace Jesus’ march along the Way of the Cross and through the Twelve Stations. It was Holy Friday, Black Friday, Great Friday and as we drove past Río Pensativo, with a few random shadows ducking into side streets, we had our doubts about whether we’d see even one Guatemalan upright and sober, much less dressed as a Roman. I thought about stopping and asking the next person, “¿Disculpeme, pero dónde están los romanos?” “Excuse me, but where are the Romans?” In our sleep deprivation – unlike other more knowing souls, we had only taken a 30 minute power nap – we just pushed ahead like late nights in San Francisco when we’d go searching for a rave or warehouse party in the most unlikely of urban places. We were not prepared for the full-scale production we were about to witness.
We turned left into Antigua Guatemala and the city was all ours with not a single car or bus cruising in from Guatemala City only to be funneled into cobble-stone streets and a bee-line string of cars into the heart of the crowded town. It’d been like that the entire week and so we’d become embedded on the other side of town, sequestered really, until this morning when space to drive was like fresh air. We drove north towards La Merced Church and as we approached, the cars began to pile up on the side of the south side of the streets , parked in random directions with crowds poring in from La Calle del Arco to the food stalls which had now become permanent fixtures right next to La Merced. They brimmed with churros, chuchitos, quesadillas, fried platanos, ponche, coffee, big rafts of thick smoke broken by lights that illuminated the crowds sauntering towards the entrance of the Church, the purple-caped men carrying sharp spears in one hand and a tamale in the other, the tents pitched between the stalls and the church, and the alfombras, colorful, intricate and immense.
The car pushed us ahead towards Alameda Santa Lucía, one of the main streets of La Antigua that leads you south into Ciudad Vieja and Escuintla, and on most days reminds you of a miniature version of rush hour on the Santa Monica Freeway or the San Francisco Bay Bridge if you were sharing the street with zigzagging pedestrians, stray dogs, tuk-tuks, cyclists, motorcycles, venders, looming buses and broken down cars. But today it was silence, with the crouching bodies of people, young and old, laying down their alfombras by the light of one light bulb and together creating a path that lit the entire street as far as the eye could see. We parked along this street and began our walk towards the church, staring in awe at one alfombra after the next , some long and sprawling for blocks, some depicting entire scenes of Jesus Christ, while others were laden with melons, mangos, split open papayas, egg shells, candles, fluttering butterflies, architectural buttresses, straw crosses.
My mouth agape as I stood by the First Station of the Cross where Jesus Is Condemned To Death by Pontius Pilate I heard hooves and galloping and turned towards La Merced to see the Romans on their white horses riding into town with their full armor and swords. “The Romans are here, look,” I told Brad, my husband, and we got out of the way for the dark, short Romans on their white steeds. As so it was the beginning of the procession which was scheduled to leave La Merced Church at 5 a.m. much to the anticipation of the bodies piled up with their hot coffees and banana bread by the entrance of the church. Thinking ahead, Brad took a place at the front of the gathering crowd at the first bend of the procession. I went towards the church, crawling underneath Romans, food stalls, legs, and ladders to see the beginning of the procession.
On my tip-toes, I saw the bus-long float carrying a red-robed Christ and his wooden cross surrounded by dozens of orchids and flowers hoisted on the shoulders of at least a hundred purple-clothed men. There was clouds of incense and the prayers by the priests were almost sung in rhythm. I could not make the words out, but I knew the journey well, I’d grown up with it as a Catholic. We were embarking upon The Passion of Christ—all the events and suffering of Jesus in the hours before and including his trial and execution by crucifixion. We had been preparing for it the entire duration of Lent and now we had arrived and were faced with, albeit in an allegorical sense, the suffering of one human being. I turned back to be with Brad for the First Station and to see how far we could make it along the all-day march. We were surrounded by thousands witnessing the procession and as it made its way towards Alameda Santa Lucía, we marched with it, flanked on our left by believers paying their respect, making the cross along their forehead and across their chests. Small candles were lit one by one and then the dark pierced their multitude like pearls or fireflies along the path. We all moved as one unit as the procession made it past The First and then the Second Station, and by the third station Brad sat by the curb of the road by Alameda Santa Lucía and said, “I had no idea.”
Neither did I, I thought to myself as we drove home to the blue light of dusk over the volcanoes. I remember as a child we would go to the beach during Semana Santa (my family are coastal people after all) and then when we moved to Guatemala City. There is where I remember standing next to my grandmother, surrounded by people crying as they held small candles when this looming figure of Christ passed. That figure instilled me fear and awe. It created a narrative in my mind. Standing there my grandmother taught me to make the cross with her and to remember how one person’s suffering can impact so many of us. Even today, she reminded me, we remember together. It’s a lesson that transcends Catholicism and which I’ve taken with me into my Buddhism—how we have to be mindful of how we help to reduce suffering in the world, not perpetuate it.