Friday, April 3, 2015

Holy Week in Guatemala

Happy Spring, Everyone!  More importantly, Happy Easter!  The grave was unable to hold our Lord, and He is alive today!  Not only did He die an indescribably painful death as payment for your and my sins, but three days after His death, He rose from the grave!  What a great God we serve, and what a privilege it is to be His!  I can't help but be passionate about His love for us this weekend, it is such a great reason to celebrate!

And "celebrations" might be an understatement of what goes on here in Guatemala during Cuaresma (Lent) leading up to Semana Santa (Holy Week, including Easter weekend).  In fact, Antigua, Guatemala, the city in which we are currently living, boast of the second largest Holy Week celebration in the world, trailing only behind that of Seville, Spain.  The entire city is decorated in purple banners, while trees all across the city are in full bloom with beautiful violet flowers that seem to be perfectly timed to bloom this week.

Antigua's Central Park packed with people on Palm Sunday

The streets of the city are shut down while business owners and residents construct beautiful "alfombras" or carpets made of colored sawdust, pine needles, flowers, fruits, vegetables and baked goods across the cobblestone.  The colors are gorgeous and intense.The materials create a beautiful colored mosaic that mark the routes of extravagant processions that march through the streets.

Laying sawdust to make a carpet for the procession.

Families work together to create beautiful carpets of sawdust.

A finished carpet that took about seven hours to create awaiting the coming procession.

Unfortunately, amidst all the beauty it seems as though idolatry and all sorts of immorality are more celebrated than the purity and holiness that are key to easter.  You see, Semana Santa, or Easter Week is similar to Spring Break in the states, but on a grander scale.  Almost all business with the exceptions of food and entertainment shut down from Wednesday until Easter Sunday.  People from all over Central America and other parts of the world flock to Antigua to party and take part in Semana Santa.  It is like Spring Break at Panama City Beach, but on steroids, if you know what I mean.  Bars and sidewalks fill up as people wait for the processions to pass along their street.  It is a pickpocket's paradise as they weave through the crowds, some with razors to slice open the bottoms of book bags and remove the contents before the owner's realize what happened.  Crime escalates as people flock to the city.

Meanwhile, the processions take place daily.  Thousands of individuals pay money to the local Roman Catholic churches in order to be a part of the processions.  They are then assigned to solemnly march, carrying enormous floats that depict a scene from the Bible for a certain number of city blocks.  The floats are wooden and carried by usually 80-100 people and can weigh up to three tons.  This act said to absolve individuals of their sins from the past year.  The church keeps their money.

Men carrying a smaller float with Mary several weeks before Easter

The wooden floats are carried on the shoulders of partakers as a payment for sin.

Women carry separate floats, often with a depiction of Mary.

The absurdity of it all blows my mind and saddens me.  Amid all of the beauty, such paganism takes the forefront while Easter is pushed to the background.  For the Christian, what would be the most significant and celebrated holiday is turned into an opportunity to make a buck.  Vendors push their way to set up shop on the front steps, and even inside of churches and cathedrals.  I can't help but picture the story of Jesus overturning tables in the temple each time we pass a church flooded with those selling jewelry, souvenirs, and "holy" trinkets.

Vendors line the entrance of the main cathedral in Antigua to sell merchandise.

Food vendors outside of another major cathedral in Antigua.

Vendors selling toys, balloons, and snacks follow closely behind the end of each procession.

Mark 11:15-17
And they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And He would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And He was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

I feel as if there are so many better ways to represent Jesus' life than a crushing weight on the shoulders of His followers. Somehow this image just doesn't sit well with me:

You see, I believe there is freedom in following Jesus.  Rather than placing burdens on us, we are now able to bring our burdens to the foot of the cross and leave them there.    Jesus has already paid for our sins through His death on the cross followed by His defeat of death three days later!  There is no need to carry them with us (for any number of city blocks) or pay to have them absolved.  The belief that there is any other way to rid one's self of sins simply belittles Christ's death on the cross.

Romans 8:1-4
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

I also do not want to write this article condemning the culture or art that surrounds me.  I realize that there are many ways to worship our God.  I also realize that there are similar distractions and idols from the culture I come from.  While one culture might party and parade images pushing the envelope of being idols through the streets, I have spent many past Easters eating marshmallow peeps, planning big meals, and worrying more about Easter eggs and the Easter bunny than worshipping Christ's resurrection.  Neither culture is wrong until Christ's death and resurrection are pushed to the background of the holiday celebrations.  We look forward to learning more about why people do the things they do here in Guatemala, and the reasoning behind ancient traditions.

This Easter, I pray that you will keep Christ's death and resurrection the highlight of your weekend, and in doing so that God's name would be glorified.

To Him be the Glory,
James, Ellie, and Riley

1 Peter 1:3-4
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, tan inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you..."

JamesandEllie / Author & Editor

James and Ellie Carr have been missionaries in Gautemala since 2014 and write to share their feelings and how they have experienced God's goodness and mercy on the mission field.


  1. I've seen other religious holidays celebrated in Spain, New Mexico and on Indian reservations. A Mexican American explained to me that the celebrations are intended to be like Mardi Gras, representing the beginning and end of Lent, the closure of the penitential season. We don't have to agree with every aspect of them, but they are enjoyable to watch. The celebration of Christmas on an Indian reservation is something to behold. Those I have gone to feature a blazing bonfire and men wearing buffalo and antelope heads dancing around it with drums beating. American Indians adopted Christianity but mixed some of their ancient traditions with it.
    In the Philippines and some other countries, men volunteer to be crucified on Good Friday. That's going a bit too far, in my opinion.

    1. That is such a cool privilege to be able to see how other cultures continue to celebrate holidays differently using the resources and customs that they have. Native American traditions seem like they would be particularly interesting to me, and I would love to experience something like that, given the opportunity. I have heard about the tradition of crucifying men on Good Friday in the Philippines, and have to agree that it crosses the boundary of "celebrating" a holiday.

      We are thankful to have witnessed so many interesting and beautiful things during the past month and a half. We just wish that the Truth of Christ's resurrection, the main idea of Easter, wasn't so muddled and washed out. It will be interesting to learn more about how these customs and traditions come about over the next few years. It seems as though we learn something new each day!


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