San Pedro Cholula is known for its fireworks on almost a daily basis. Legend says there are 365 ancient Catholic churches, one for every day of the year here. A family in the vicinity of the parish buys the homemade fireworks. Usually that family that has to pick up a couple of extra jobs out of obligation to take their turn to buy the colorful and fantastically loud explosives and offer a meal for all. They have no alternative; do it or risk excommunication from their community and all the benefits of baptism, first communion, a blessed marriage and hope for an eternity. The fireworks are not only tradition but many still believe that the loud pops will call the attention of deceased saints and ancestors, maybe even the Virgin herself–all who can help get their prayers answered or their loved ones out of purgatory when their piety is heard. Easter (Pascua) weekend was not different, just louder with peals of bells ringing in greater frequency.
The week leading up to Pascua, called Santa Semana (Holy Week) elicits the bells. On Maundy Thursday, most people stay home after attending mass. The streets are empty. This is the night they take their last shower until Saturday. On Friday, the tone is somber with processionals going through the streets with downcast eyes, purple and white paper-cut flags, statues of Jesus on the cross or even dramatizations of Jesus carrying His cross and being nailed for all to see. There are no bunnies or eggs, candy or decor.
On Saturday, Sabado de Gloria throwing water to passerby’s is symbolic for holy cleansing. Because of the water shortages, the government forbids this, but in smaller towns where a river is nearby, one sees small crowds of people making their way to the water to carry on the tradition. This is the night people bathe again. This is the night the air fills with the music of fiestas, and alcohol is bought in great volumes, even 10 peso bottles of tequila. It seems sacrilegious. On Resurrection Day, for those that attend their parish, they wear their nicest or newest clothes. For many this is perhaps the only day of the year they might attend church; it is no different for nominal evangelical Christians. The streets are again, void of the usual traffic. All is quiet, the Resurrection of Jesus less of a cause for ceremony that His suffering.
In a culture where the name of Jesus is not unknown to anyone, the meaning of His death and life is strangely obscure. Which is why, in some ways, it difficult to speak of the Gospel of Grace. Why? Because here they are so close, yet so far away. So very far away. Here, Jesus stays on the cross. His suffering is still happening and the more one can share in that suffering the greater one can earn favor in heaven and heaven itself. Which is why, when working in many of the villages where the more “simple” dwell, there is little grumbling or complaining. They are conditioned to be content with their lot in life not out of gratitude, but more so out of the belief that if they suffer well and suffer much, divine favor will rest upon them.
Another missionary, years here longer than mine articulated his observations on Easter this way on his own blog,
“Easter morning…the resurrection of Christ and what were these Catholic faithful doing? They were there in their work clothes with wheelbarrows doing construction on their perpetually unfinished building. The finished work of Christ on Friday somehow only leads to their own efforts to impress God and man by showing up on Easter morning for a work project. I assume they know that Jesus rose from the dead, but there is no understanding of the power of the resurrection and the true purpose of the cross. For these people in that community, the events of the week merely point toward how great Mary is. She loved her son and wept for him. The Father cursed and abandoned the son. The loving, faithful mother stayed with him and wept for him. The son did as he was told. It’s a cultural story that results in an elevation of the maternal god who loves us and weeps for us too. They’d better be about her business because for them, that’s where Easter left us.”
Many would not be able to articulate all this so precisely; it is hard-wired from generations of not being the ones colonized but conquered. They are a people who carry the stories of generations past, connected in a way that would seem backward to the mindset of the independent, pioneering American. For those called here to proclaim the power of the full Gospel, the need to reexamine and define one’s own theology of suffering based on the full counsel of God is imperative (and a good topic for another post). For the Christian churches here whether consciously or unconsciously, they do whatever they can to separate themselves from the Catholic traditions, Easter is too silent.
It comes and goes with barely a ripple, in my novice observance. There is the knowledge of its profound importance, but the expression is lacking. The reasons for this goes further than what I have already mentioned, but again that could be another post (biased, from my own observations and questioning). Still, my heart missed the jubilant celebration I experienced among the believers where I come from. Very much. I missed the clarity and passion that the truth of our great hope brings.
Our small bi-lingual more urban church hosted a quiet Easter breakfast potluck. A pool filled in the jar din for the two baptisms scheduled before the service. We all gathered around nonchalantly (Mexicans are reserved in a warm sort of way). Two went under the water from death to life, the promised power of the Holy Spirit coming upon them like the book of Acts proclaims. One, a precious woman I prayed with just a weeks ago, comes from a background of demonic activity many of us have never seen, emerged with new light in her eyes. I wanted to clap and holler, but I was coming from my culture in this wish. Or was I?
We have made it a tradition to invite the church over for Easter afternoon. What joy, after our move this past fall into a new rented house, to finally be able to open up our home again and fill it with the joy of fellowship. It has taken me time to learn how to host here. The informality is less than what I’ve been accustomed. The way the women take over your kitchen and they take seriously that mi casa es su casa is really a delight.
It felt good this the second year around and I could relax more in the understood expectations. We ate and ate and ate, played games and then some left and some stayed to hike up our local mountain. Of course, my dear husband had to shoot off his massive homemade potato guns too and we all laughed at the flying potatoes crashing into a distant field of new crops. In the midst of our fun, there were moments of ministry through prayer and counsel. Our body here is a broken and hurting one in many ways. Redemption is an idea that so many cannot believe is true. The work of establishing a healthy body here, growing in wholeness and knowledge is one that takes years. I have much to learn.
Most of our friends have never hiked our local mountain. They had never seen their land from tall heights. We took them to the place where we have often gone to pray in earnest over Puebla and Cholula, for God to pour out His Spirit upon these people. Oh, how we long for this in greater measure! We joined hands and some of us prayed. Again, I am longing for faith’s expression to show itself in fervency and passion as if our prayers do change things, as if they cannot be under-estimated. I wanted to kneel and weep over this city with my brothers and sisters, but again was that coming from where I have been? Or not?
We quietly hiked back down, tired from the day but with a satisfaction that it had been good. As the custom here, you say good-bye to everyone with an embrace and a sort of blessing and then they eventually leave. There is no slipping out. After the last farewell, we locked our door. Benjamin got our happy and weary kids into bed and I stayed downstairs to sweep floors, wipe counters and gather up garbage bags to take outside.
The air was fresh, the stars were clear and my heart was full. After awhile Benjamin came downstairs and we sat on the couch together for a moment. Both tired, we managed a short but sincere prayer. Gratitude for this beautiful house to share, for the mountain, for our church family, for the Resurrection.
For the hope that Jesus will continue the work of making bringing the fullness of life to the most desperate of places and people.