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Published: April 30th 2012
A light drizzle falls from a slate sky. It is colder than expected. Inside, the percussive tremulous flurry of flamenco guitar rattles the bar’s tinny speakers. Tapas spread across the low wooden table - viridescent garlicky olives, thinly sliced jamon serano, fat-rippled chorizo, honey drizzled manchego cheese sprinkled with ground coffee, and a steaming plate of golden fried anchovies. The tapas, the cold beer, and the weather are strong incentives not to go anywhere.
I thumb through a stack of postcards, images delineating the contours of Andalusia:
In one, the Mezquita in Cordoba, a building encompassing the layers of history and culture that have shaped Southern Spain. A cathedral within a mosque built from the ruins of a Visigoth church and a Roman pagan temple.
Another shows a tile of swirling Arabic calligraphy from the Alhambra, the 13-14th century fortress-palace of the Islamic dynasty in Granda. Granada was the last toe hold of the Moors on the Iberian peninsula, where they ruled from 711 until 1492, when they were finally conquered by the armies of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.
Another is of one of the numerous red roofed white-washed villages, the pueblos blancos, strategically perched
on steep cliff tops to survey the surrounding land.
In another, the ritualized archetypical struggle of man versus beast that sprung from Andalusia in the 16th century - the maddened bull, horns gleaming, thrashing at the muleta, the swirling red cape, of the matador.
The last shows a black and white picture of hooded penitents carrying crosses in the procession of Semana Santa, Holy Week, which culminates in Easter.
Easter always makes me think of El Dorado. Not the fabled city of gold that consumed Spanish conquistadores in the New World, but a tiny inconsequential town in eastern Kansas. In the early 1980s, Easter meant driving to El Dorado with my family. It meant the indignity of having to get dressed up in a light powder blue suit, comb my hair, and take family photos. Then it got worse, much worse. I had to go to church. Any attempts to alleviate the staggering boredom of church were stymied by Mom’s clenched-teeth, hissing whispered commands to sit still, keep quiet, keep my shirt tucked in, stop fighting with my brother, and listen to the preacher. For a seven year old, the Easter sermon finally matched the reality of
church: it was largely about suffering.
Easter, after all, is about a guy who gets condemned by a mob, has to drag a cross through town and up a hill, and then gets nailed to it. He eventually dies and then the body is dumped in a cave. Days later, some ladies find the body missing. Logically, they conclude that this fellow Jesus must have risen from the dead.
Holy crap! Jesus was a zombie, eating brains and terrorizing Jerusalem in a Biblical Night of the Living Dead! The was awesome! Alas, zombie Jesus, I was informed, was not only absurd but also blasphemous. I didn’t know what blasphemous was, but my version seemed no more absurd than theirs. Rather than a zombie, they would have me believe that Jesus had risen from the dead and somehow become not only the son of God but also his own father and a ghost. I was seven, not an imbecile.
Anyway, church was super duper, horribly, wretchedly, terribly awful, BUT there were serious perks: Christmas and Easter. Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, and it was even better than my own birthday. On his birthday, a fat man in a red
suit flies around the world in a sleigh and comes down the chimney and leaves lots of cool toys, though he always leaves some boring things like socks and underwear too. Easter isn’t quite so great, but it is waaaay better than normal church. On Easter, a magic rabbit, which I always imagined Jesus riding, came to El Dorado and hid colored eggs all over the yard. The Easter Bunny must have known that hard boiled eggs sucked because it also left wicker baskets full of plastic green grass, packs of baseball cards, colored jelly beans, and loads of chocolate bunnies. I was amazed to learn that the Easter Bunny, like Santa Claus, had the ability to transcend time and space, for my friends all had eggs and baskets of goodies too. Apparently, like Jesus, the Easter Bunny was a miracle.
Thirty years later, both the Easter Bunny and Santa have stopped visiting, and despite widespread certainty among a frightening number of people, I am still not buying the resurrected Jesus is God story. Nevertheless, I am fascinated (and more than a little terrified) by what faith can inspire. There are few places where its quite as dramatically displayed
as Andalusia, Spain during Semana Santa, Holy Week. Although much of the fervor, fear, and faith that assuredly once animated the Semana Santa ritual has faded, the pageantry and pride it inspired remains.
Every night of Semana Santa, tall pointy-hooded cloaked figures carrying three-foot candles and wooden crosses emerge from the gaping mouths of monstrous baroque churches and lead processions through the twisting cobblestone streets of old Spanish cities and villages. The people in Ku Klux Klan regalia are Nazarenos, penitents, who are traditionally hooded to hide their sins from their nosey neighbors. Those possessing a surplus of faith and/or sins walk barefoot and have chains manacled to their ankles. Behind them, carried above the heads of the watching crowds, are the floats. During the week of Semana Santa, men from different religious brotherhoods carry the enormous pasos (floats) through the streets. One depicts scene from Jesus’ final days and the other, the Virgin Mary. The floats weigh some 1500kg and upon the backs of men, the costaleros, slowly sway up and down the winding streets of the old city in a cloud of incense and tremendous bursts of drumming and trumpeting.
Together, the floats unite the hallowed
pincher stratagem of organized religion - shock and awe. Mary is awe: shimmering, lacey, sparkly, dripping in silver and glittering in flickering candle light. Jesus is about shock. By mid week, he is down to his skivvies and rivulets of blood are running down his forehead and dripping from his knees and elbows. This is Spanish Catholic Jesus, graphic and gruesome. Spanish Catholic Jesus isn’t any blue-eyed, sandy-brown haired, surfer Protestant Jesus. There are no bunnies or jelly beans. Spanish Catholic Jesus is about the suffering.
Allegedly, the Semana Santa processions began in the 16th century as a way to reinforce the central dogma of Christianity for the illiterate. The Inquisition was in full swing and Spanish Catholicism was heavy on fear and trembling before the power and the glory of the omnipotent Catholic Church. One can imagine a Semana Santa of torchlight, barefoot penitents, self-flagellation, swinging silver censors perfuming the air, religiously cowed and terrified crowds, and maybe the Inquisition burning a heretic or two just to make sure everyone got the message.
These days, scare-the-hell-out-of-you Catholicism is fading in Spain as education levels wax and the dictatorship of tyranny and poverty wane. Although it may be
that ‘even the atheists in Spain are Catholics’, it is increasingly more of a cultural identity than a spiritual one. During Semana Santa, the streets fill with families and friends congregating along the pasos’ routes eating sunflower seeds, drinking beer, and laughing with neighbors. Their unwatched children scurry through the streets collecting the drippings from the penitents’ candles into colorful wax balls. Restaurants are lively and boisterous and tables overflow with beer, wine, and tapas. The mood is light. The air is succulent. The energy is celebratory rather than solemn. Though Semana Santa is certainly religiously inspired, it is probably today less religiously inspiring. Semana Santa seems to be a valorization of community, tradition, and Spanish culture rather than a collective meditation on suffering and ritual sacrifice.
Outside, a faint rumbling slips down one of the cobblestone streets twisting into the plaza. Jesus is coming. Gathing up the postcards, we wander out into the rain to join the crowds converging to watch the approaching procession.
Jesus riding bunny from http://images.sodahead.com/polls/000927249/400px_JesusBunny_xlarge.jpeg
Zombie Jesus from: http://loljesuspictures.blogspot.com/search/label/Easter
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