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Rites of regeneration.

As far back as known recorded history and beyond, mankind has ritually celebrated the renewal of life brought by Spring. Rites have changed in name and form and have adapted to various calendars, but at the time near the vernal equinox when temperate regions experiences the fresh ebullience of nature's energy, the world will be created anew by the resurrection of a god.

Among the Maya, as in other great civilizations of the past, the gods have always required a yearly round of sacrifice and prayer in order to perpetuate the miracle of life. Their priests officiated over an intensely religious life so similar in many ways to Christianity that to the Spanish conquerors the native rites of baptism, fasting, supplication, and burning of copal incense appeared to be diabolical counterfeits of Christian sacraments. Within a sense of infinity where past and future became indistinguishable, it was religion that lent unity to the world of the Maya. And so it came to pass, as foretold in the Maya sacred books, that the day would come when bearded men would arrive from the sea bringing new forms of worship.

In Guatemala, the twenty Maya-speaking groups that make up half of the population have been Christianized, but many keep to their old religious practices. The greater gods have been largely forgotten. The people are devoted to the Catholic saints and archangels, which have taken the place of their minor gods, and whose favors they seek with offerings of rose petals and fragrant copal. Still, the gods of the soil and village protectors remain enshrined in the heart of the Maya peasant. It has been said that they are Christians in the churches and pagans in the fields, where they humbly apologize to the earth for disfiguring its face with their cornfields, or to the animals they may hunt out of need.

Maya festivals are now arranged according to the Christian calendar and the bloodletting rituals have given way to milder forms of penance. The imagery has changed; at Holy Week they don the conical headdress symbolic of the loss of individuality through death and the purple of royalty and sacrifice to reenact a drama transplanted from distant lands. The city of Antigua, high fertile valley flanked by lofty volcanoes, is renowned for the fervor and beauty of the holy pageant that yearly depicts the death and resurrection of Christ. Perhaps appropriately so, for the onetime colonial capital has itself been repeatedly reborn from the ruins left by devastating earthquakes.

Every year, as the first full moon of spring approaches, Antigua becomes a living theater where the last days of the Savior are played out in elaborate rites. On the morning of Palm Sunday, stately possessions issue forth from the major churches and move solemnly along the cobblestone streets to symbolize the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. In the afternoon, the figure of Christ sculpted by Alonzo de Paz in 1650 is taken from the church of La Merced, raised upon a heavy wooden platform, and borne by 80 men who have paid for the privilege and who are often substituted along the way by other eager devotees. As Christ is led in procession, the crown of thorns and bleeding noble countenance move the faithful to share his pain, even as the ancient Maya carried their noble lords and witnessed their public sacrifices.

On the nigh of Holy Thursday, scores of Easter Week celebrants forego sleep as they embark on the creation of the massive rugs that are traditionally laid on the streets for the next day's procession. The rugs, made of flower petals and sawdust, are hand-dyed in brilliant colors and designed with the same peerless artistry the Maya of Guatemala display in their textiles. Some of them might still be acquainted with the long past symbolism of color related to the four Bacabs that sustained the world: red, the color of life, for the East where the sun rose; white for the North, from where the cooling winds of winter came; yellow for the South, the right hand or great side of the sun; and black for the West, where the sun dies. Designs range from abstract geometrical motifs to highly realistic religious themes, some reverting to images of Maya gods in acts of sacrifice.

The week's ceremonies culminate on Good Friday. Before dawn, Roman soldiers on horseback ride through the streets proclaiming Jesus' impending death. Soon after sunrise, escorted by throngs of worshippers and pilgrims, the figure of Christ is slowly carried again in procession from La Merced to the accompaniment of a somber death march, while penitents' feet rend the lovely rugs to shreds. As tradition requires, the procession stops in front of the city jail where one or two lucky prisoners are chosen to join the spiritual quest by shouldering crosses heavy with chains before gaining their freedom. This custom dates back to the XVII century, when all the cell doors of the old prison miraculously opened as the procession passed by.

On Saturday of Glory, the women honor the gentle mother of Jesus by carrying her poignant image and joining in her sorrow, for Christ has died. But the Passion of Christ reiterates that there is no creation or salvation without sacrifice, for life must be fed by life. Easter will be the recognition of its divine, imperishable nature. Then, when He rises like a newborn sun, it is fitting to celebrate life's precious gifts with the flowers, fruits, and music that bring sustenance, health, and joy.

Yet, in the highlands of Guatemala the beloved Maya traditions live on. Time follows its endless cycle. H-men read and keep books of prophecy in the manner of the Books of Chilam Balam. And the continuity of existence is reckoned by the ancient count of days. Egla Morales Blouin is a Puerto Rican writer who lives in McLean, Virginia, and is editor of he Boletin de la Oficina Sanitaria Panamericana of PAHO.
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Title Annotation:Guatemala's Holy Week celebrations
Author:Blouin, Egla Morales
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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