The last time we were in Aquiares, a coffee farm on the slopes of Volcan Turrialba in Costa Rica, for Semana Santa (holy week), was almost forty years ago.
That first Semana Santa, my daughter was just learning to walk, and she practiced her steps on the dirt roads from our house, called Esperanza, to the Aquiares village church, where small girls in home-made saint costumes, were carried aloft on wooden platforms by their older brothers and fathers. Now all my daughter’s children walk and run, and I limp.
More recently the Aquiareños decided to mount the whole Passion story over the course of the three days leading up to Easter.
I have certainly heard of Passion plays all my life. I did after all go to a lamentable Catholic school where the only subject taught was religion, and even that badly. And in my hagiographic period I sought out and admired many saintly relics of dubious veracity and taste. But I had never seen a Passion play. What exactly did I expect?
Thursday evening we walked down to the playground where we found the table set for the Last Supper, on the basketball court. This proved to be a convenient choice, as there was existing lighting. An extravagantly bewigged and bearded Jesus entered from stage left, followed by his twelve apostles, with their names written in large letters on sashes across their chests. This being the 21st century, even in a small Costa Rica village, several of the apostles were played by young women. Then bread was eaten and wine was drunk, and words were said, words that that had been said thousands upon thousands of times before. Then Judas – a much coveted role – snuck out to meet with the Roman soldiers and tell them how he would identify Jesus with a kiss. For this, he got his 30 pieces of silver.
Judas returned to the basketball court, kissed Jesus and set the betrayal in motion. The Roman soldiers rushed the stage and took him away. I am sorry we have no more pictures, but it was quite dark by then and I had only a cellphone camera.
Good Friday was the big event. It was drizzling. We had Gallo Pinto, huevos, mangoes and papaya for breakfast, and headed up the Cuesta Dura hill. A large portion of the village was there, but not everyone. (Even Aquiares has a few Evangelicals, and presumably they would not be caught dead at a Catholic Passion Play.) People raised umbrellas or went back to their houses to get umbrellas. Mothers adjusted their children’s costumes. It was hard to tell when the action began. Then it did. Soldiers marched back and forth, very seriously, very much in step with the drummers drumming.
A word about the Roman soldiers: there were dozens of them, in age ranging from six to forty-six. They all wore tunics, capes, fitted pants, and soldierly boots. They all carried shields emblazoned with SPQR or a crab. They all wore silver helmets topped with broom bristles in a variety of colors. (Here, as previously seen in the Aquiares ‘super’.) Many soldiers had leather wristlets, and many others carried swords. Others drummed.
The soldiers brought Jesus out, his face almost completely obscured by his extravagant wig. His brown tunic was now marked with red paint. They flogged him with sponges attached to sticks. He made all the noises of pain, and a few children started to wail. If any young parents were questioning whether this spectacle was likely to traumatize their children, they did not make themselves known. The procession commenced, as it did nineteen hundred and eight-five years ago, with Roman soldiers marching, locals watching, commenting, greeting each other, and Jesus carrying the wooden cross. Along the way, various women stopped the procession and spoke to Jesus, often at length. It did not go unnoticed, by me, that all the long monologues were performed by young women. Halfway down the hill, Simon of Cyrene was enjoined by the Roman soldiers to help Jesus with the cross. And so we processed through the village of Aquiares, past houses of old friends, past sleeping dogs and lost shoes, past a pulperia and the ‘Super’ Mercado, past the tailler and the beneficio, to the churchyard. There, behind a scrum of Roman soldiers spreading wide their cloaks, Jesus was laid upon the cross that had been fashioned by the local carpenter earlier that week, with a platform for standing and straps to hold up his arms, in lieu of nails. More soldiers pulled the cross upright with ropes, and the well-known words were spoken, and a vinegar-soaked sponge was offered, and thus ended the day’s events.
What was our place in all this? The idle spectators? The gringos? The local populace? The interlopers? The Philistines?
Obviously, it is not every day that Jesus is crucified. It is also just an ordinary drizzling day in the village of Aquiares, and neighbors are chatting, and mothers are making sure their kids have snacks, and chickens are squawking on patios, and everyone, including the priest, is taking pictures on cellphones.
That evening, the evening of good Friday, after the crucifixion CSB had trouble breathing. He couldn’t catch his breath. It was troubling enough that, after ascertaining that the local doctora was away from the farm, we headed for the nearest emergency room.
There, in the waiting room at the William Taylor Allen Hospital there was a flat screen television mounted in a corner, showing Ben-Hur. With the sound off. At first I didn’t know it was Ben-Hur, or what it was. I guessed Spartacus (Roman soldiers, ancient times, hunky actor) but I was wrong: that was another movie, with another actor. Even in a Turrialba waiting room, it is possible to Google “Charlton Heston, movie with Roman Soldiers” and quickly discover Ben-Hur.
Like the Roman soldiers in Aquiares, the soldiers in the movie wore tunics, fitted pants and capes. Their shields bore the letters SPQR or the image of a crab. They wore silver helmets, and maybe the costume department at Universal had not refashioned brooms to create their bristly comb, but the effect was the same as in Aquiares.
The health care was excellent and unbelievably cheap. It took a long time to get all the necessary tests read, but even so, we did not see the end of Ben-Hur.
I hear the movie ends well. CSB also is feeling much better.