At right you see a picture of one of these "processions". In addition to marching bands and long lines of people dressed up in special costumes (purple and white robes for the men, black dresses for the women), they have special floats used only in Semana Santa called "andas". "Anda" is Spanish for "walks", perhaps so called because the float travels by being carried on the shoulders of men or women walking down the street, or maybe because as it goes down the street it sways from left to right like some giant drunk caterpillar. As you can see, these can be rather large: for the anda above, there were probably close to 50 men carrying it, plus men at the front and back to help steer it; the even larger one below may have as many as 60.
Through Semana Santa, the different processions commemorate different activities in Christ's last week before His crucifixion. The anda at left is probably the most spectacular one, all lit up with a glass coffin in the middle with a statue of Jesus in it. We thought it looked like a small cruise ship, all lit up as it was. Following this anda there was, as with most andas, a band following playing music that they obviously felt was appropriate.
Another amazing feature of Semana Santa is the beautiful alfombras ("carpets", an interesting word for which Spanish speakers no doubt owe thanks to the Arabs that populated Spain for hundreds of years) that people make in the streets. These alfombras are typically made with a base of either colored sawdust or pine needles; beyond that, almost anything goes. The one at right is made entirely of sawdust: they put down pieces of wood for the edges and start filling in with sawdust. Then, after building up a base layer, they start adding layers of other colors using wooden stencils or sometimes freehand. Many alfombras, especially later in the week, are much more elaborate: examples of some I saw had birdcages all down the center, thousands of fresh-cut roses, or birds carved out cantaloupes and watermelons. Nobody is allowed to walk on these until the andas pass by; immediately after, street cleaning crews come along and sweep up the remains. Thus, these beautiful artistic "carpets" take many hours to create but sometimes only a few minutes before they are destroyed.
The entire week is dedicated to two things: the grisly death of Jesus, and the victory of Mary (or "la virgen" as they call her). Though I don't have any problem with portraying the death of Jesus as what it was, to focus on solely that is only half the story. As Carol, our hostess, pointed out, though there were many processions and events associated with Jesus' death on the cross, in the entire city of Antigua, there is not one single official ceremony associated with the resurrection of Jesus. On the schedule they gave out, there were indeed two resurrection events... but they were both in different towns. Nothing in Antigua.
This is amazing to me. Now, in the US, Christian churches may not perfectly portray the death and resurrection of Jesus, but at least the resurrection (aka, Easter Sunday) is a widely celebrated event. In Antigua, it's virtually unknown. This is really presenting only half the story. And, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:16-19:
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.
This is exactly the situation of so many people in Guatemala: dead in their sins. Of course, that is true of most of the people in the United States also. However, the thing you cannot miss about Guatemala is how religious the people are. Men pay significant amounts of money to carry the andas on their shoulders in the parades. Why? I believe, at least in part, it is so that they can do penance for their sins, trying to work their way to heaven. As Todd Friel has said recently on a Wretched Radio broadcast, when you remove the law of God (the ten commandments, etc) you always find legalism taking its place. We are all born Pelagians and unless born again, we will always try to work our way to heaven.
In the case of many (not all, of course) Guatemalans, they substitute a faith in Mary to save them. The number of andas carrying statues of Mary were staggering. For example, there was the procession that featured the anda shown above, where Jesus was suffering under the load of carrying his cross. What shocked me was that, immediately after that anda with the suffering Jesus, came an anda with a triumphant Mary (shown at left). Think of it: Jesus couldn't take the punishment, so Mary comes along to make everything right. Another example is in the "La Merced" cathedral, which is a beautiful church; but the centerpiece of its altar is a small suffering Jesus on the cross, with a huge triumphant Mary above. I wish I could say these were isolated examples, but, sadly, they are not.
Now, don't get me wrong: I have great respect for Mary. As the mother of Jesus in His earthly incarnation, she was greatly honored among women. But, as she herself says in Luke 1:46-47:
"My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior..."
Mary knew that she needed a Savior, just like the rest of us. And it's clear that she knew that Jesus was that Savior.
Also, don't get me wrong in thinking that I condemn the Semana Santa proceedings. Some evangelicals do, especially native Guatemalans: I do not. In fact, many of the processions and events are very beautiful, and show a deep reverence for Christ and for what He did for us on the cross. No Christian should ever forget that, and I do not see a problem with graphic reminders. The problem I have is that these sorts of things can very easily take on a life of their own, and become more important than the original thing which they are commemorating. And it's very clear that so many people in the city have made this mistake, worshipping and serving created things (as Romans 1:25 reminds us) rather than the Creator, who is forever praised. Amen!