- Rev. David Garcia
- Rev. David Garcia
FLESH MADE WORD
Thomas A. Kane, CSP
I have included the Pesame in this collection because it is a reflective combination of liturgy, ritual and popular religion. The Pesame takes place in San Antonio, Texas, on Good Friday night as a continuation of the afternoon Liturgy of Good Friday. It has in origins in the blended Tex-Mex culture of the region and is a unique contribution to the Church of the Southwest. The Pesame includes heartfelt prayers, the funeral procession, the burial of Jesus, and the Condolences to the Sorrowful Mother. I see this ritual event as an extended homily that moves the participants - heart, mind, and body. From all my work in liturgy, I can think of no other service that so engages the assembly on such an emotional and affective level, while providing a link between Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.
Rev. David Garcia
The ritual begins at dusk on Good Friday with a solemn beat of a drum fur the funeral procession. The wailing high-pitched song of a woman mourning the death of a loved one pierces the air. The long line of participants enters San Fernando Cathedral for the beginning of one of the most moving traditions of the church year, the Santo Entierro and Pesame a La Virgen, the Holy Burial and Sharing of Sympathy with the Virgin.
This tradition has continued in San Antonio for over two and a half centuries. It has always brought people together to enter into the gospel story of the death and burial of Jesus and the sorrowful loss his mother suffered. The images of Jesus and Mary that are carried in procession and lovingly honored are part of the strong sense of being present that day so long ago in Jerusalem, of entering totally into the gospel story and experiencing it from the inside.
Since medieval times rituals and ceremonies such as this one have been part of the Church's tradition. They belong to that form of devotion we now call popular religiosity. All of this was brought over to the New World by the Spanish evangelizers who saw these traditions as one powerful way to teach the faith to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. They trusted that if one lived in the moment of the gospel story one could be moved by that experience to enter more fully into the gospel. In that process one can then actually become the gospel, the good news for the world. That is the movement toward conversion.
The genius of popular religion is that it invites one to enter totally, mind, spirit and body, into the experience of the gospel or a story of faith. All the senses are involved. We see the ritual and the color. We feel the movement of our body and those around us. We touch the statues and images of the holy ones who are with us this day. We smell the incense or the flowers or the night air as we process through the plazas and streets. We hear the music or the soft shuffle of feet as we wind our way through our pilgrimage. We respond with our words in song or recited prayer. It is an experience of the whole being moving together with others as we follow the two santos, Jesus and Mary, on the solemn burial procession.
The first dominant image of the Santo Entierro is that of the crucified and dead Christ figure. Jesus is taken down from the cross at the beginning of the ceremony. Every motion is sacred. The nails are slowly removed and the arms slowly come down to the side. The image is lowered. We see the blood that flowed from the crown of thorns and streamed down his filce. The spots where each nail pierced the hands and the feet are clearly shown. The people carefully and lovingly place the body on the "ataud" fur carrying in the burial procession. The body of Jesus is then taken around the plazas and streets of the city, slowly and reverently, mostly in silence as each person reflects on the power of this moment. On this night the sacred space of the church spills out onto the secular space of the city. All becomes sacred space as the movement of people of faith fills the community. People in cars stop and stare, while pedestrians grow silent as the line of pilgrims slowly and quietly winds its way through the streets.
This is a moment of transformation. What is it about carrying the dead Christ that so fills us with a mixture of sadness and hope? Do we not see in this image the first taste of the Resurrection? Do we not feel the depths of loss and hopelessness, yet at the same time the promise of a future life? Maybe we see our own lives in this moment, a mixture of Joss and hopelessness, yet sustained by faith. It is this reflection that calls us to something else. We are called to become different, people of hope, as we make the streets different with our faith-filled movement.
We enter the church again and begin the loving preparation of the body for burial. The women dressed in black approach the Christ. They pour the scented oil over him and anoint the limbs and torso with soft caresses. They take their time. This is one night when no one rushes. All have time to enter fully into the experience. Every part of the body is anointed and re-anointed, carefully, lovingly.
We see in the dead Christ our own mortality. One day we will also die. It may be a tremendous moment of suffering and pain. It may be a silent unconscious final gasp of breath. Death may come in the prime of life or at the end of many years and many gray hairs. Death comes suddenly and unexpectedly. It can also come when one decides simply to surrender to a long illness or old age. It can be the result of cancer or AIDS as we are told by our physician how much time we have left to live. Death is inevitable and at the same time something we never completely understand.
The dead body of Christ calls us to prepare for our death by living. It calls us to welcome death as a friend not an enemy, as one to be embraced rather than feared. Our Hispanic celebrations of Dia de los Muertos allow us to celebrate death, to make fun of it, and to confront it. This is not fatalism It is living life fully so that we die well. It is understanding that we are all somehow connected in that great communion of saints with those who have gone before us. We venerate our antepasados. We ask for their guidance, inspiration and help. We see in their lives heroic faith-filled examples. We remember those who have died so that we learn from them how to live well. We see in the dead body of Christ our own dead loved ones. Christ was the first to die in faithfulness to His Father. Our departed loved ones followed him and we must do the same. It is a moment to renew our faith and to commit ourselves to follow the one who died fur us all.
The entierro finishes with all of us lovingly approaching that dead Christ figure and leaving flowers on his body. We touch it, caress it, run our hands down it. We kiss his serene face, bloodied hands or tender feet. We carry our children with us and teach them to also know who this is. We want them to learn how Jesus loves them and how they must love him in return. We show them how to venerate this sacred image in a centuries old tradition of handing on the faith to the next generation. They quietly stare with big eyes as they get closer to the image then they have ever been before. They ask why was this done to Jesus and we begin to tell them the story. We take our role of being the chief catechizers of our children seriously as we carefully explain the story of Good Friday to them. It is a sacred moment as children begin to understand in their own way the love of God in Christ fur them. What a powerful lesson for us all.
The ritual now turns our attention to the Dolorosa. Mary, the mother of Jesus is dressed in black. She has the look of agony and profound loss. She has suffered intensely the cruel sorrow of a mother who is forced to see her flesh and blood tortured, beaten, mocked, and killed. She is there for every moment of the long march to Calvary. She feels sharply every whip, every full, every thorn and every hammer of the nails. She is hurt deeply by the taunts hurled at her son. Now she is the picture of sorrow as her race tells us that her son is dead. The loss is without compare.
In La Dolorosa we see ourselves in sorrow and loss. The losses we go through in life are many. They can be as simple as the loss of a friend who moves away or the loss felt when we graduate from school and realize that life will be different for us. It is the loss of leaving our mother country, our pueblo, our relatives and lifelong friends to come to the United States in search of a new life for us and our family. It is a loss that is also felt when a child leaves the home to get married or enter the service. It is a loss of a job when we are laid off or let go. It is the insecurity of seeing life changed and somehow never the same again. It is the deep loss of a separation or a divorce. Finally it is the loss of a loved one in death. Somehow that loss through death is the deepest and most final. There is a hole in the heart that cannot be repaired. There is a sense that something so much a part of us is now gone for the rest of our lives and we must somehow carry on. We can never be the same after loss. Something has died in us. Something new must now rise. It is always hard.
La Dolorosa is the symbol of all our sufferings and loss. She symbolizes especially the unjust suffering and losses we endure. Her son was killed in a great act of injustice. We see every day numerous injustices perpetrated on us and many more we know. We remember the child killed by a drunk driver or the son lost in the war. We have vivid memories of the innocent thousands killed on September 11th. We recall how a relative or friend died of cancer in the prime of life leaving a spouse and children behind. We know of the neighbor who is separated from his family because of unfair immigration policies. Over and over again, so many instances of injustice have been experienced by our people.
Often there is no one to turn to for help or support. Often the only thing left is faith.
La Dolorosa is the picture of faith tried by fire. She said yes to the invitation of God to be the mother of Jesus not knowing what it would mean to live out that vocation. She suffered deeply for that yes, yet she never wavered in her commitment to live that faith. She is the model of faithfulness in suffering. We receive tremendous strength in her example. She inspires us as many strong women of the past have inspired us. Our mothers and grandmothers, who handed on the faith to us, are called to mind as women of faith. Their prayers pulled us through many a difficult moment in life. We learn from their deep and firm steadfastness to their vocation of faith that suffering is part of this life. It is part of the carrying of the cross all disciples are called to do.
Condolences to the Sorrowful Mother and Burial of Christ
A Conversation with Rev. David Garcia
Questions for Reflection
- What makes the Pesame so engaging? so prayerful? so meaningful to the community?
- “Popular religion belongs to people not the clergy.” How does this statement reflect the experience of Pesame?
- How is loss and grief expressed in the ritual actions of Pesame?
- In what ways does the procession engage the heart and soul of the participant?
- Why does the power of personal presence and human touch so influence the Pesame experience?
- In what ways does the silent procession of Pesame influence other prayer practices?
- How does the expression of the seven sorrows of Mary still touch us today?
- How does the anointing with oil and the burial of Jesus with flowers teach us in ways that textbooks do not? What is the relationship to evangelization and catechesis?