This year I had the opportunity to spend the Sacred Triduum in León, Spain, where my youngest sister-in-law has been studying abroad for the year. A spot on el Camino de Santiago (if you’ve seen The Way with Martin Sheen, you know what I’m talking about), León prides itself on being the “ciudad de Semana Santa,” or the “city of Holy Week.”
I arrived on Holy Thursday, shortly before one of the many, many processions that sway through the city in the course of the week. People of all ages participate in the processions, either marching with crosses; supporting what we called “floats,” for lack of a better word, depicting scenes in the life and passion of Christ; or playing in small bands that accompany each scene.
To the American eye, some of the costumes can be unsettling: the pointed hoods are reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, especially when worn in white. Some quick research via smart phones and Wikipedia taught us that the hoods are a sign of penitence—and León’s were first. While the KKK’s hoods may have similar roots, the use in León does not have the same implications.
It is amazing to me that a whole city changes its course for a whole week to remember the passion of Christ. People come to León for the week to witness the processions. Some are certainly there for traditional or cultural reasons, rather than the spiritual draw. Case in point: the traditional drink served in restaurants this week is limonada, similar to sangria, but sweeter and more lemon-y. It certainly doesn’t taste like sacrifice.
Whether or not the intention is a solemn remembrance of the passion of the Son of God, images of Him are there, literally in the middle of the street, the focal point for more than just Camino pilgrims with their hiking backpacks and walking sticks.
The processions are not a simple stroll up and down Main Street, or rather, Calle Anche. They take a variety of routes that weave through the city. My sister-in-law had a schedule of the processions, but there seemed to be more—to the point that we sometimes ended up boxed in an area of the city, unable to cross streets and get where we intended to go. It was almost comical, the number of streets we tried to walk down Thursday night to find dinner. It seemed at every turn, we were saying to ourselves, “Procession! Turn around!”
The scenes on Friday depicted the story of the Cross. Unfortunately, I didn’t get pictures of these, since we were behind a larger crowd. On Holy Saturday, we watched from the balconies of the apartment we’d rented. Portrayals of the Resurrection and the “Three Marys” passed by on their way to the Vigil.
The same floats were present Easter Sunday morning, passing in the reverse direction, now toward the beautiful cathedral. No one wore hoods anymore. The dark cloak Mother Mary wore the night before was now gloriously white. The women in the procession who had been wearing black lace on their headpieces followed suit. They had white lace on the morning of the Resurrection.
The bishop spoke from the gathering outside the cathedral. “Alleluia” is the same in Spanish and English, as is the delight of seeing doves released into the sky amid applause. There were just three doves and then about three dozen pigeons, which may have some significance we weren’t aware of. If nothing else, it seemed a practical choice, since so very many of these birds make León home.
I understand very little Spanish—my last class was seventeen years ago!—and I spent my week in Spain thinking in mostly German, with a little French thrown in (“Oui, bitte!”). My brain, it turns out, has only one Foreign Language mode. But what we celebrated this week is universal, catholic in the “little c” sense. What a gift to experience it from another point of view, to recognize in a distinct way the joy and the power of the Resurrection.
He is Risen, indeed!
Copyright 2017 Lindsay Schlegel