Backlit by a brilliant setting sun, the Palm Sunday procession of Jesus riding a donkey and the townspeople makes it way toward the Ajijic Templo de San Andrés.
Spring has sprung here, the jacaranda trees are covered with tiny beautiful lavender blooms, some primavera trees are full of palest pink orchid-like flowers while the branches of another variation have burst with bunches of sunshine yellow flowers. They look like mother nature has strewn the area with Easter eggs.
Easter Celebrations—Semana Santa and Semana de Pascua
Celebrating Easter in Mexico is not about a new dress, hat or dusting off last year's white shoes and purse. The two parts of this enormous spring holiday center on the church and religion on one hand and family and festivity on the other.
Mexico is renowned for local interpretations of the Easter events in the form of Passion Plays which portray the last days of Christ as reported in the Bible. The best known of these meaningful productions at Lakeside takes place each year in Ajijic.
Eduardo Ramos Cordero (Lalo) and his companions began by researching the clothing and details of the Biblical stories of the events during the last week of Christ and then Lalo wrote a script and the group started planning scenes that they could portray.
Nearly 40 years later Lalo is still directing his friends and dozens of other townspeople in a Semana Santa (Holy Week) theatrical extravaganza. From the opening event, the triumphal entry of Christ into the city riding on a donkey on Palm Sunday (this year on April 17) through the last supper, trial, crucifixion and the light show which accompanies the resurrection late on Holy Saturday (April 23), this is a beautiful moving event you'll not want to miss.
(Left:) All day, artists work weaving fresh palm fronds into intricate designs. (Right:) Before the procession, neighbors cover the street with fragrant, freshly cut alfalfa.
Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday)
On the corner across from San Andrés Church, artesanias
work all day forming intricately woven crosses, virgins and other figures from fresh palm fronds. These small works of art are sold for a dollar or two
and are carried to the day's masses to be blessed. After the day's events the palms are kept near the door of village homes where family members can see them and bring to mind the life and death of Jesus every time they enter or leave the house.
Shopkeepers and homeowners along Parroquia and Hidalgo, all the way from Ajijic's San Andrés Church to Six Corners, clean the sidewalks and street then dampen the area to help control the dust for the several hundred people who will walk in the procession. By 5 p.m. they are covering the street with fragrant, freshly cut alfalfa. The entire length of the Hidalgo procession route is as green as a lush lawn.
When the re-enactment of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem begins, the men playing Jesus' disciples lead the burro carrying Jesus to the church. The setting sun in the west creates a spectacular effect for photographers. Some shots show the rays of sunlight forming a natural halo around the head of the village man who will portray Christ this year.
Just as described in the scriptures, the followers of Jesus walk along the path which has been covered with the branches of the fields and wave their palms singing hosannas.
As the procession nears San Andrés Church, small boys climb up into the steeple to ring the old bells with the clangors and mallets while the town's newer bells peal pneumatically. Jesus and his disciples lead the crowd through the church gates for a 7 p.m. outdoor celebration of mass in the church's atrium.
Jueves Santo (Maundy or Holy Thursday)
In some of Mexico's cities and villages, the faithful spend Holy Thursday visiting seven different churches to commemorate seven moments of Christ between his arrest at Gethsemane and his crucifixion at Calvary. For some the custom has been expanded to meditate on one or two of the Stations of the Cross (Via del Crucis) in each church.
Thursday night's feature is an outdoor mass in the atrium of the Ajijic Templo de San Andrés which includes Jesus washing of the feet of the disciples and commemorates the last supper.
(Left:) Jesus and his followers arrive for the Thursday evening Last Supper service in the church atrium. (Right:) Local residents take their roles in the Passion Play very seriously and the committee and players work hard to make the costumes as true to the time as possible.
After the service, Jesus and his followers walk up onto the mountain for the scene in which Jesus retreated from the group to pray and returned to find his disciples asleep. By the time the Roman soldiers go up the mountain to find and arrest Jesus, it is dark in Ajijic. The torches carried by the Romans and by the disciples can be seen from the village as if a serpent of fire is curving up the hill.
Following the arrest Jesus is marched to the town plaza where he is taken to the courtyard of the chapel on the north side of the plaza which represents the court of the Sanhedrin. There he is placed in custody to await trial. To complete the prophecies, the spectators also witness the three betrayals of Christ by Peter, and hear the crowing of the cock.
With the arrest of Jesus, the church bells which normally chime every hour, mark the quarter hours, and announce several daily masses are silenced. They will not ring again and there will be no masses held until the end of the Easter Eve vigil and the resurrection of Christ on Saturday night.
Santo Viernes (Holy Friday)
The front of Ajijic's San Andrés Church is transformed into the opulent palace of King Herod for the trial of Jesus as the passion play resumes on Friday morning.
The human statues and fountains that decorate the palace of Herod are Ajijic's younger residents who are painted gold and stand motionless in classic poses — for hours in the blazing sun. It is considered a great honor to be selected to portray one of the statues.
(Left:) Three young women form a motionless fountain — the water is the only movement. (Right:) A young archer held this position for more than an hour in the mid-day sun.
The local townspeople take honor in portraying the cast mentioned in the Bible. Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are there, along with wonderfully costumed early Christians and complacent Roman townspeople and authority figures.
(Left:) The players depict the townspeople who watched the trial of Jesus as spectators watch.
The Roman soldiers fend off the angry uprising of the people in the mob who cry, "Crucify Him" in response to the offer to release Jesus. The action is as real as the players can provide in the annual event.
(Right:) Pilate appears during the trial to confront Jesus with the charges.
As Jesus is scourged by the Romans' whips, sometimes real blood dots his back as one of the men with the whips miscalculates and actually strikes the actor. Trickles of stage blood dot his head under the crown of thorns.
When he picks up the huge cross to carry it through the village and up onto the mountain to the site of his crucifixion, spectators are visibly moved.
On the mountain, Jesus is hung between two thieves to die. As he speaks from the cross, weakens and dies, the agony and grief in the crowd is palatable, heavy and real. Subdued, most of the crowd disperses but his mourners remain on the mountain with him until nightfall. Then, as Jesus said in his last words, "It is over."
You'll find that it doesn't matter that none of the participants are professional actors. Each participant offers all of their energy to God, taking great personal pride in the sacrifices of time, energy and money needed to accurately fulfill their role. Each participant observes the Catholic tradition of the story of Christ's passion as closely as possible. Their suffering and courage is mixed with a great deal of enthusiasm, soul and love.
The Procession of Silence
Friday evening the year's most moving and emotional procession is held. Townspeople gather and move in absolute silence through the streets. In sharp contrast to other processions punctuated by sky rockets and the music of the town's brass band, the mournful slow drum cadence and the quiet shuffling of the feet on the cobblestones is the only sound. One of their throng moves through the streets ahead of the procession turning out streetlights and leading the sad entourage in darkness. At the head of the group, banners proclaim, "Silence! Jesus is dead."
Throughout the somber crowd, village people carry signs listing the sins for which Jesus died. This is a solemn, quiet, very serious and moving event. Please turn out your house lights, do not chat, smoke or drink as the procession passes.
Sábado de Gloria or Sábado Santo (Holy Saturday)
On Easter Saturday, most church doors in Mexico are closed and locked. The always-burning candles at the altar were extinguished at the hour of Jesus death, and the altar remains veiled. In church buildings where from two and eight masses are celebrated on every day of the year, only a brief prayer service is held on this day of deep mourning.
All remaining consecrated communion wafers and wine are removed from the church buildings and for two days, there is no one home in the church. It is a dark, sad, empty shell.
The Easter Eve vigil
On Saturday night around seven, Ajijic townspeople carrying two-liter bottles of water and candles begin to gather on the plaza and in the churchyard for the Easter Eve vigil. During the first portion of this three-hour service the parish priest blesses the year's supply of holy water and sacred candles, for the church and the people who have brought them to keep in their homes.
The first candle to be lit is the huge ceremonial candle that resides in front of the altar all year and burns during baptisms, confirmations, first communions, weddings and other special ceremonies. From it all the other candles are lit, and the blessed fire is passed on from person to person through the crowd until the dark area begins to glow.
The hundreds of chairs in the churchyard aren't nearly enough to hold the crowd that has assembled. The service is highlighted by a chorus of bells and skyrockets. The light, smoke and sound show accompany the announcement that Christ's tomb is empty and that he has risen from the dead.
The candles, the holy water and the Host are carried into the church (empty and dark since Friday afternoon) bringing life back to the building. The religious portion of the night ends with this service and mass, the first held since early Friday morning.The social portion of the night begins when Mass ends and the dances and celebrations continue until dawn.
Domingo de Gloria or Pascua (Easter Sunday)
Until I learned the tradition of the Easter Eve vigil, I was puzzled by the absence of riotous celebration at the church on Easter morning. I thought that if ever there was a time for pealing bells and skyrockets, it would be Easter morning.
But Easter is like other holidays in Mexico — celebrated the night before. Christmas morning and Easter morning are eerily quiet with few people on the streets and virtually no traffic until near noon. There are also no Easter baskets, colored Easter eggs, jelly beans or chocolates – those are all customs that have remained north of the border.
It can be very sunny and hot in late April, still, witnessing the Semana Santa events in Ajijic is a rare privilege. Bring your camera, wear a hat, use sunscreen and carry plenty of water. This touching portrayal of the last days of Jesus will be one of the highlights of your Lake Chapala experience.