New Mexico’s Holy Week
By Brian Snyder
The high desert of northern New Mexico, with Taos as its unofficial capital, is a confluence of cultures and eras. Native American, Spanish, Mexican and American cultures co-exist and show themselves in both modern and old ways. Holy Week in this area is celebrated in a very public manner within the safety of the region, beyond the notice of much of the rest of the United States. The rites and customs are very much of the place and cultures found there.
On Holy Thursday a youth group re-enacted the Stations of the Cross at the Sanctuario de Chimayo. The Sanctuary is a church built over a source of sacred dirt that is believed to have healing powers. It is also the destination for thousands of pilgrims from all over during Holy Week. The youth group from Our Lady of Sorrows church in nearby Bernalillo has been doing the performance for years, with new teenagers replacing the previous year’s every year or two. The whips hitting the man playing the role of Jesus are real (though the blood is make-up) and the teens are convincing in their roles as Mary, the women of Jerusalem, Veronica and Roman soldiers.
If the pilgrimage at Chimayo is well-known and better publicized, the pilgrimage in Ranchos de Taos and Talpa on Good Friday is a very local, traditional and communal activity. The several mile walk begins at the famous San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos and from there the Stations of the Cross are marked in various fields, front yards, moradas, and capillas along the route. Four men carry a large cross and lead the procession, with several hundred believers following behind. In many ways Good Friday is the apex of Holy Week. Worshipers, including many young people, pray out loud, sing, and even chat and laugh with one another as they make their way through the countryside.
The moradas, which are unsanctified chapels, are the spiritual home of the Hermanos, a private, secretive, lay group of Catholic men with a history dating back hundreds of years. During Holy Week the Hermanos worship at the moradas and welcome the pilgrims as they pass by on their walk. With the Hermanos are a group of girls dressed all in black, including black veils, representing Veronica (who in the Bible wipes Jesus’s face).
The Hermanos are also parishioners at the local Catholic Churches and share rites with the church, including an Adoration of the Cross on the evening of Good Friday in Santa Cruz.
Holy Saturday is a day of rest and preparation at the small chapels found in every small town around northern New Mexico, including the Nuestra Senora de Delores Capilla in Arroyo Hondo.
It was more hippies and New Agers that gathered for Easter sunrise service presented by the United Methodist Church in Taos. They met at the Rio Grande gorge, and in the middle of their ceremony, the sun came over the mountains to the east.
Back at the San Francisco de Asis church, pews are set up outside the doorway to accommodate the overflow worshipers who could not fit in the church.
After one of the Masses, one of the Hermanos notes that he feels empty from all of the worship and fasting over the previous week, but also completely “filled up spiritually for the rest of the year.”
And back at the Sanctuario de Chimayo, dancers with the Danza del Santo Nino de Atocha perform a matachines dance in honor of Easter. It is a dance with costumes and drums and rattles that do not look anything like the official ceremonies at the Vatican. According to one of the group’s drummers, the dance originated hundreds of years ago with a Mexican-Indian who had a vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and is now danced on select holy days including Easter. He says “We dance for our faith, for our Catholicism.”