Apr 8, 2012

Cross-cultural differences at Easter

This is the first Holy Week that I've spent in Panama.    I spent most of it with Panamanian friends who explained to and  guided me regarding this country's cultural and religious observances of Easter.   I was baptised Lutheran, but even so, with the separation of church and state such a strong issue in the US, even Lutheran religious practices have been "watered down" and I've never experienced many of them.

In the Lutheran church, as well as most Protestant churches, we have services on Good Friday to commemorate Christ's crucifixion. And some of us may fast or will only eat fish on Good Friday.  But the focus of all  Protestant worship during this time is the resurrection.  Easter Sunday is the most celebrated day in terms of worship, church attendance,  praise and inner reflection.  Even the secular sector gets involved with this day, and Easter comes second only to Christmas in terms of business exploitation.  Interestingly enough, this is not the case in Panama and probably not so in other Latin American countries.  Good Friday is the day that is more widely celebrated, and there are no Easter bunnies or colored eggs on Easter Sunday.  Business pretty much resumes as normal on Easter.

In Panama, government and businesses close on maundy Thursday around noon. The sale and/or consumption of alcohol in any business establishment is prohibited by the government.  Supermarkets can't even sell cooking wine.  On Good Friday, the commercial and governmental world comes to a standstill.   In every town or city in Panama, there is an evening  religious procession.  In Boquete, the streets are cordoned off around 6 pm, and the procession generally gets started later, around 8 pm. 

Having been impressed with the procession for the Virgen de la Medalla Milagrosa in Santiago last July, I was looking forward to Boquete's Easter procession as well.   It certainly wasn't what I expected, even though in retrospect it makes perfect sense.  Don't know what I was thinking...

Compared to the Santiago procession, which is a procession of praise, the Good Friday procession is one of mourning.  It is a symbolic funeral procession.  And, for me, it was macabre.  I discussed my gut reaction with friends, but few understood my point of view.  I could only mildly comprehend theirs.  Nevertheless, it was nice to be able to talk about and share our cultural differences.

My camera was hiding on Good Friday, so I couldn't take pictures. But the procession consisted of  four floats and a lot of people on foot with somber faces.  The first float simulated a crucifixion cross, and several bent-over men carried the huge monstrosity on their shoulders   A large sign in the shape of a heart was illuminated at the head of the structure, with the words Peace and Love written in Spanish.  The second float was a glass coffin with a religious image of a dead, agonized and bleeding Christ inside.  Between each float was a crowd of people who solemnly walked along and prayed intermittently.  The third float unsettled me the most.  It was a float of Mary, mother of Christ, dressed in beautiful gowns.  I didn't hang around for the fourth float, as it started to rain and get cold. 

Don't understand why I was bothered by the procession.  All I could think about was that the Catholic Church was brainwashing and exploiting the masses.  I usually don't harbor this attitude, but  I just felt that the coffin and the queen's robes were superfluous overkill.  Too much  melodrama.  Friends and I discussed [and disagreed with] the elevation of Mary's status.  My female friend's perspective was that  Mary, as Christ's mother, is a very important personage who didn't receive the acknowledgment, respect and importance  she deserved during Christ's time.  This friend thought the acknowledgment of the impact of Christ's mother was imminently important...  I pondered whether the Catholic church in Latin countries provides this idolized recognition to satisfy matriarchal social structures.  And although I didn't express these latter thoughts  aloud, it was interesting that a male Panamanian friend nodded in understanding when I asked why Mary was being paraded around in fine garments.  He didn't comment, however. 

The Santiago procession, which was Mary worship on steroids, didn't grate on me to the same extent.  Maybe I was too wrapped up in the picturesque-ness of that parade to ponder the significance of it all.  Being a closet feminist and mother myself,  I'm very surprised that I'm bothered by the idea of Mary adoration.  Why in the world would I criticize or discount Mary's importance?  Could it be because of a covert chauvinism in my own religious upbringing?  I haven't the faintest idea.  But it bothered me to see Mary dressed in a queen's robes and paraded along that way.  I'd love to speak with a religious psychiatrist or psychologist about this.    There is a Hispanic saying that I thoroughly enjoy---Cada mente es un mundo---(every mind is a world).  Maybe I need to explore my own a little more.

The main point to be made is that Panama focuses on the crucifixion of Christ. The closure of government and businesses, and the banning of alcohol in public places is part of the expression of mourning and deference.   For the day of resurrection,  which we celebrate,   Panamanians attend an Easter mass, after which life returns to normal.  Businesses open back up, alcohol can be consumed, and families return to eating meat. 

I have no objection to Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies, believe me.  But I appreciate the Panamanian observances for being more in tune with the true meaning of Easter.   Not thrilled about the Good Friday processions, though.  Que será, será.