On a dreary Friday afternoon near the end of Holy Week, Semana Santa as it’s known in Spain, the weathered streets of Barcelona pulsed with pilgrims and onlookers mesmerized by the beats and passions of the traditional Viernes Santo procession commemorating the sorrow of Christ’s sacrificial crucifixion.
Ted and I found ourselves standing in the Spanish city’s Good Friday throng mere hours after disembarking from our transatlantic ship crossing. Leapt we from lavish cruise ship surroundings and memories of blissful blue ocean waters into the brooding atmosphere of a seaside city in mourning. Easter on the horizon, but death and darkness first.
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Perhaps not altogether unlike those Good Friday descriptions of the afternoon when Christ was put to death, the Spanish clouds poured rain, and the sky hung heavy.
Barcelona on Good Friday: La Sagrada Família under construction in the distance, as seen from the rain-soaked balconies of Park Güell.
After spending midday at Gaudí’s Park Güell, where we’d dashed between cloudbursts and envied families with umbrellas, we returned to the Gothic Quarter to find our place among the mix of tourists and residents crowding sidewalks and apartment windows.
The rain stopped. The people stood.
The schedule was not ours. Ours was to wait in patience, holding on to our slice of pavement while police monitored curbs and elbows wedged to find space in the thickening mass of bodies.
Trumpets and drums signaled just up the way, and fistfuls of rose petals tumbled in sorrow from balconies above. The processional exited the church doors and turned right toward the people.
Craning necks. Point and shoot cameras. Cell phones held high overhead to catch a glimpse of the commotion up the street. And then the marching neared.
The mourning of the pious, the tempo of somber footfalls, and the sight of weary shoulders carrying a massive trono from church through city corridors cast a nearly palpable spirit of melancholy across me.
As the hooded figures carrying crosses drew closer and as the giant wooden platform carrying a representation of Mary and Jesus passed by in front of old and young, I watched faces, searching for clues about feelings and faith.
Who was here for a show? Who was here for tradition? Who was feeling heartbreak?
Of course, it’s impossible to really know…
“Looks aren’t everything…God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks into the heart.” -1 Samuel 16:7
Traditional nazareno robes and hoods dating from medieval times. The Latin acronym INRI (Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum), nailed to the top of each cross, represents the English translation “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.”
Musicians spreading mournful notes through the heavy air…
The trono, an elaborately ornamented wooden throne or platform displaying scenes from Christ’s suffering and crucifixion, weighs more than 1,000 lbs. and rests upon the shoulders of a team of men charged with carrying the display slowly, slowly, slowly along the processional route.
Mourning and sorrow.
Hope and joy.
Tourist and worshiper.
These juxtapositions pierce deeply.
A king who gave away his rights.
A God who gave a second chance, for love.
Traditions, cameras, gawkers and gimmicks…
And, for some, deeper truths and a reason to be ready to celebrate come Easter morning.
Together they wrapped Jesus’ body in a long linen cloth with the spices, as is the Jewish custom of burial. The place of crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb, never used before. And so, because it was the day of preparation before the Passover and since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
If you’re curious about the feelings out there on the streets, the two videos included below yield a few glimpses…
…Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships,
You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,
God shall o’er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze…
-Gerard Manley Hopkins Excerpt: Easter Communion
Traditions and Customs: Semana Santa
Holy Week festivities and Good Friday processions around Spain
Semana Santa: A Guide to Holy Week in Spain and Guatamala
Excerpted from Lonely Planet’s A Year of Festivals
When I was very young, my mom practiced a tradition of leaving off all the electric lights in our home between Good Friday and Easter morning, to remind our hearts of the days and nights that Christ’s body laid still in the grave…
-Easter Darkness Before the Dawn: Remembering the Light of Life