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Lenten Customs Vary
Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993.
By Hermelinda Vega and Brenda Marusich
As with any other customs, Lent is celebrated in different ways on the border. In the U.S. many Christians sacrifice during this 40-day period by giving up a favorite activity or food. Others go to church more often or spend a portion of their time in prayer or mediation.
However, even familiar customs differ between El Paso and Juárez.
Procession around the cathedral in Juárez. Photo by Claudia
The first day of Lent is called Ash Wednesday. For Catholics this is a holy Day of Obligation and the priest places ashes in the form of a cross on their foreheads as a symbol or repentance for past sins.
Here on the border, ashes are made of burned palms from previous year's Palm Sunday observance. Ashes are dispensed at services twice in the evening, says Father Tomas Perez, a priest at El Paso's Guardian Angel Church.
In the past, deteriorated pictures of saints no longer used in churches were burned and the ashes used for this ritual, according to Tiburcia Barron, an old-timer from Juárez. On this day in Juárez, Catholic churches are open all day long, and mass is held every hour.
The Sunday before Easter, or Palm Sunday, commemorates the day Jesus entered Jerusalem amid crowds which strewed palm branches before him. Most Christian churches distribute palms to their members on this day. In the past, traditional Mexican and Mexican-American families often made crosses out of the blessed palms and placed them above or behind a door to keep out evil spirits. This tradition appears to be on the decline, and palms can be found on the floor of the church after services.
Catholics in Juárez also receive the blessed palm during mass. However, Palm Sunday traditionally is the day that people from southern Mexico come to Juárez to sell herbs outside the churches. The most popular ones are manzanilla (chamomile), which is a medicinal herb for colic, and laurel, or bay leaf, a flavorful spice.
The most important and final week of this season is Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday, it is believed that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and shared the Last Supper with them.
In Mexican cities, the Catholic bishop washes the feet of twelve poor residents representing the twelve apostles. This is a sign that the bishop, like Jesus, is here to serve and not to be served. To commemorate the Last Supper, bread in the form of a round braid is blessed by the priest and given to all the parishioners during mass.
Good Friday is a day of sorrow and mourning for all Mexico in commemoration of Jesus' pain and crucifixion. "All businesses and educational institutions are closed. Most people do not go to work," says Jesus Burciaga a lawyer and instructor at the Instituto Tecnologico de Ciudad Juárez.
Burciaga says that a group of residents from the west side of Juárez annually reenact the crucifixion of Christ. Stores generously donate props and small farms lend horses to make this performance more authentic.
The man who portrays Jesus must be honest, patient, faithful and conduct himself with integrity. It is an honor for him to represent Jesus making the ultimate sacrifice.
Wearing a crown of thorns, "Jesus" carries a 160 pound cross to "Calvary", two miles away. The "soldiers" on horsebacks whip "Jesus" as he walks. The man playing Jesus must show no emotion as the stations of the cross are observed. Once he reaches his destination, he is "crucified" (the cross is specially built with ropes to keep him on the cross and simulate crucifixion). While on the cross "Jesus" pronounces the "seven last words," the final statements made by Christ in his human form before death, and the dramatization ends. The faithful then attend a long sermon on the last utterances by Christ.
For the past eight years, the Jesus Chapel Ministries have sponsored an elaborate reenactment of Christ's passion in McKelligon Canyon which draws more and more visitors every year. The stirring production includes live music, a cast of hundreds, and the natural setting of El Paso's rugged mountains.
In Juárez, the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated on el Sabado de Gloria, or Holy Saturday. During the day there are no festive activities such as weddings and baptisms. Catholics throughout Mexico burn an effigy of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed and sold Jesus to the Roman soldiers. This year, such burning was down as much as 80% because of environmental concerns. Makers of the life-size papier-mâché figures believe their days are numbered.
The Mass of Resurrection may be celebrated at midnight, although the time varies from church to church. Ceremonies begin with a fire outside the church at which a new candle is lit, symbolizing "the world's light" or Jesus. The priest enters the church carrying the large candle with the parishioners following, also carrying candles. During the mass, the priest blesses enough water to baptize children for a full year.
Mexicans and Americans alike celebrate Easter Sunday with rejoicing and celebration of a new season, and they often wear new clothes to reflect this. Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny have become linked with the festival of birth and rebirth. Eggs have assumed significance as symbols of immorality and fertility in many cultures since ancient times.
As with all holidays, Lenten customs change over the years. But some things remain. On the border Lenten foods are prepared and served only at this time (See the 1991 issue of Borderlands for an article on Lenten foods), children anticipate candy and egg hunts and adults often become more introspective. Regardless of the customs border families follow, Lent gives birth to Easter, a time when thoughts of gloom are banished and new life is celebrated and embraced.