The Holy Week (Semana Santa) begins on Palm Sunday ( Domingo de Ramos).
Today, April 17th, was Palm Sunday in the Christian world. Since I recently moved into the heart of El Centro, I was surrounded and immersed today in the activities and crowds of the beginning of the Passion or Holy Week.
While the New Cathedral, the largest church in Cuenca is only a half a block from my residency, while even closer and across the street from the New Cathedral is the Sanctuary of Mary, another large church, whose square is the location of the open flower market, and then across from me is the San Francisco Square which to the south of the market is the San Francisco church. All three churches within a block of one another, and an adjoining monastery to the east of me, with my residency right in the heart of it all. I feel like I am living in the center of Little Vatican City.
As my friend and I walked past the New Cathedral as mass was letting out, I was amazed at how the people continuously swarmed out of the cathedral for the next ten minutes. The flower market had expanded far beyond its usual boundaries as sellers of palms became the priority over the usual selling of flowers. The palms were large and arranged in elaborate designs, some were braided into crosses or into baskets, other palms were interspersed with flowers. The palms were taken into the churches by the worshipers, blessed by the priest, and taken home to be put on display—possibly arranged around a crucifix or holy picture or painting on the wall. When we were kids, we were told to place the palms under our mattress where they remained until replaced by fresh palms during the next year’s Palm Sunday. I don’t recall why we placed the palms under our mattress, possibly the blessing of the palms was to protect us while we slept.
The evening mass at the Sanctuary of Mary was overflowing with approximately a hundred people standing outside the front entrance and another hundred standing outside the side entrance of the church. These overflow crowds reminded me of a typical Sunday in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the United States when church attendance was obligatory under the pain of mortal sin, and attendance at Catholic masses was very high.
For those of you unfamiliar with Catholic and Protestant practices, Palm Sunday is the beginning of the Passion Week. Jesus entered Jerusalem as Jews from all over Israel entered the Holy City to make their way to the temple, the focal point of the Jewish religion. The Jews were coming for the celebration of Passover, which was in commemoration of when the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Hebrews who had as Moses instructed sprinkled the blood of a lamb over the door post of their homes so that they would be spared death, while the eldest son of each Egyptian was slain by the Angel of Death.
According to the teachings of the New Testament evangelists, Jesus was glorified by the crowds and palms were laid before his path as he entered Jerusalem riding a mule, thus the reason for the feast day known as Palm Sunday. This Passover Week always made the Romans nervous, because of the large gathering of Jews in one place. There was always the fear of riots or rebellion against Rome, particularly when there was talk of a "king of the Jews".
Thursday, known as Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday by some Christian groups celebrates the Last Supper, which was the Passover Feast. Keep in mind that Jesus and his apostles were all practicing Jews.
The Catholic Church may still have the custom of the priest at Thursday’s service washing the feet of twelve men. The twelve men represent the twelve apostles. The priest re-enacts what Jesus did at the Last Supper as an act of humility and servant-hood, which he modeled for his apostles and disciples.
Many Christians in recent years have setup a Seder Dinner, which is a replica of what makes up the traditional Jewish Passover meal, but with Christian overtones and prayers. Shortly, thereafter, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, where ultimately the evening led to his betrayal by Judas and Jesus’ arrest.
I do not know if Seder dinners are held in Ecuador. On Thursday, however, Ecuadorian families bring food and beverages to their relatives’ graves at the local cemeteries, this custom is very similar to All Souls Day (Nov. 2nd). I would imagine that the visit to relative’s graves is practiced in Cuenca as well.
Good Friday marks the remembrance of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Upon Jesus death on the cross, his body had to be removed from the cross, readied for burial, and placed in the tomb before sunset, which on Friday evening was the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. According to the scriptures, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, which has been commemorated for almost 2,000 years as Easter Sunday.
According to Travel Ecuador (3/8/2011), On Good Friday through the streets of Quito runs the parade of flagellants hurting their bodies with scourges , men carrying big wooden crosses and disciplinants called ‘cucuruchos’. Whether this tradition is found in Cuenca, I guess I will discover as I observe this week’s ceremonies.
The tradition of cone-head robes started in Spain during the Middle Ages, when the capirote hat was placed on the head of a person before the execution as a symbol of public humiliation.
Capirote has been also used by the disciplinants during the processions as an act of faith in God, who they believe will appreciate their pursuit for the inner change, leading to salvation.
Similar processions are commenced in several Latin America countries, in Ecuador besides Quito the tradition is vivid especially in Chimborazo district ( towns Yaruquies,Tixan,Chasmbo and Chunchi). Once again, the degree to which this custom is practiced in Cuenca if at all should become evident in the unfolding of the week’s events.
Eastern Sunday is the most important Christian Holy Day of the year. Easter commemorates for the Christian, Jesus’ victory over death and over sin. Jesus succeeds where the original Adam failed by being fully faithful and obedient to the Will of God, his Father. Christians, therefore, believe that through faith and repentance in the saving grace of Jesus Christ, they too can experience redemption and salvation of eternal life. God the Father, through the sacrifice of His only begotten Son, reconciles through His love for mankind the relationship that had been shatter when sin first entered the world through Adam and Eve. God, not man, alone could make right what man had made wrong.
No doubt the churches in Cuenca will be even more overflowing this upcoming Easter Sunday. The color purple is used to shroud the statues and paintings in the Catholic churches during Passion Week, and will not be removed until Easter Sunday. I imagine that there will be many re-enactments of the Passion story this week in Cuenca, as well as many processions.
What becomes very evident to me in a nation where 94% of the population is Roman Catholic, is how the church continues to have a stronghold on the minds of the people. A hold which still continues to be a primary factor in providing Ecuadorians with a cohesiveness of faith and culture. There are no Easter bunnies, Eastern baskets, or Easter eggs in Ecuador. The secularization of religious holidays in the United States, which had once been a strong Christian country, has not taken form in Ecuador. In the United States today it has reached the point were groups are attempting to eliminate the word "Easter" altogether, to spring bunnies, spring baskets, and spring spheres (not even the word egg is allowed). Whether Ecuador will follow the same parallel pattern of secularization as the United States and much of the Western world, or whether it will move toward a different path of national identity and destiny, only time will tell.