My Holy Week in Cuenca, II
Updated: Apr 20, 2022
This is Part Two of a series on Holy Week in Cuenca
So some weeks ago, Padre Jorge and I decided that we would celebrate the complex, profoundly symbolic, and deeply moving Easter Vigil together, in both languages with both Ecuadorians and English-speakers together. The experience of unity and communion on this most holy of nights would be a great sign of what unites us as people of faith rather than what divides us culturally or linguistically. Padre Jorge led most of the way, but I was able to take part in English at various important moments and we divided up the scripture readings and accompanying psalms between our communities. It was interesting to see the Ecuadorian "take" on some of the rites of the Easter Vigil, particularly the "great fire" that is blessed outside the doors of the church and from which the Paschal Candle is lit. Their version was the smallest "great fire" I have ever seen...liturgical minimalism at its maximum! It was just a few small pieces of kindling burning up against one of the pillars of the entryway. He and I shared in marking the Paschal Candle with the digits of the year and the Alpha and Omega that refer to the Risen Jesus, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Unlike the fire, their Paschal Candle was stout, yellow with authentic bees wax, and tall enough to stand out with dignity in this powerful ritual of new light and life that is at the heart of the Easter Vigil.
Once lit and solemnly carried into the darkened church, the flickering flame of that candle brought light into the completely dark church interior, just enough to reflecting off the gold-leaf of the reredos above the altar. Once set in place and incensed, Carlos, the parish cantor took his place next to it and began to sing the Exultet, the solemnly chanted proclamation of the Resurrection. Carlos filled that church with the melodies and poetry of the Exultet like I have never heard before anywhere. It was so deeply moving because of the emotion and confident faith Carlos invested in every word and note. Unforgettable.
Later, as the Gloria was sung, the church lights were turned on and a great white sheet was pulled down from high above the old altar behind us revealing a statue of the Risen Jesus, illuminated with spotlights and moments later, highlighted by smoke rising up from below his pierced feet...I mean real smoke. I hadn't yet noticed the smoke, but some of our Anglo parishioners were frantically trying to get my attention and pointing upwards. When I did see it, I leaned over to Padre Jorge and said, "Padre, hay humo...fuego!" He whispered back, "Its supposed to be there." Well, of course. Why not? It's Easter! Well, on to the Gospel of the night...
The story of the women finding the tomb empty on the first day of the week gave way to both Padre Jorge and I preaching, each in our own language. In my case, I began in Spanish by thanking Padre Jorge and the Ecuadorian community of the Parroquia San Francisco for welcoming us, not just this night by every Sunday. I told them that most of the folks here find themselves far from their old homes, their children and grandchildren, their parish churches, and so it is a great gift that here in this parish church, among you, they find a new family, a new church home, the warm embrace of fellow believers and friends. I then switched to English and began with the words, "It may be that the Lent we just completed will be remembered as the Ukrainian Lent..." Though it began with by reflecting the present darkness of our world, the homily did move to the tender, fragile, ever so un-militant light that illuminates our church this night and our world any night if we let it. Though I was speaking in English, I felt a great attention from those gathered before me and Padre Jorge, from all. There was a communion among us even before we got to Holy Communion. These two communities praying together as one through the night was in itself an Easter experience for us.
One of the quiet delights of the night for me personally were the three Ecuadorian children serving us as monaguillos, our altar servers. I had already gotten to know Daniel Alejandro and Denise from our Sunday Masses, but new to the scene was young Felipe. Throughout the liturgy, he was seated just to my right and often I caught his eyes moving from their formal "steady ahead" position to long glances over his left shoulder up to the statue of the Risen Christ behind me. As his eyes traveled back down, they'd catch mine and I could see just enough of a crinkle at the edges of his eyelids to know that behind his mask this little guy was smiling at me. And so, with my eyes, I'd smile back. I can only presume that above me that Risen Christ was also smiling upon this sweet little guy. Another little bit of Easter joy to enlighten the night.
Once the great Easter Vigil was complete, several of us taxied home. Once back in my own place, I knew I wasn't done yet. The next morning I had two more Easter liturgies on my Easter docket, the first in Spanish and the second for our community in English. This, of course, meant two more homilies to try to work final kinks out of before feeling free to head to bed. The next morning, the Spanish Mass went well enough; I reprised my Easter Vigil homily from the night before and managed to fairly successfully translate it into not just another language, but across to a distinct culture. As the Easter liturgies unfolded, I found myself missing the more abundant Alleluias that fill our Easter hymns and acclamations in North America. (It seems that the religious cultures received from Spain do a better job on the "passion" side of Holy Week, whereas we tend to revel more in the "resurrection" side of the feasts.) As if to compensate for the earlier lack, I made the Alleluia a central part of the English homily by beginning with an invitation to our little congregation to join me in a few additional rounds of the melodic Alleluias from the old hymn, Ye Sons and Daughters and so we also ended.
By the time, the final Easter Mass of the great day was coming to its close, I had just enough energy to chant the final "Go in the peace of Christ, Alleluia, All-e-lu-u-u-i-a!" And I got the trilling notes right on that last Alleluia...something I've rarely ever done over the years...must be the clean and clear Cuencan air! Afterwards, many of us wandered to the pub next door to the church for a coffee and croissant before going home for the remainder of the Easter feast. I walked the mile back to my place, most of it along the roiling Tomebamba River, with sunshine to warm me, and feeling good and tired, with the emphasis on the "good", a particularly Eastery kind of good and tired. Once home, I did what priests and pastors have been doing for millennia following the final Mass on Easter: I went to bed. My 43rd Holy Week and Easter now complete. Not quite retired just yet, it seems.
But when all is said and done this and every year, this is what we know as we crawl under our blankets on Easter afternoon: The tomb has yet again been found to be empty and many hearts, including our own, have been found to be full. Alleluia, Alleluia, All-e-lu-u-u-i-a!