Each church marches through the city to present their 'pasos.' One paso depicts a scene of Jesus' passion larger than life and another shows the gilded and ornate Virgen Maria mourning. Each of these weigh more than 4,000 pounds and is painfully carried by as few as 40 'casaleros' who place the weight of the paso on the nape of their neck. Throughout the week, you see men walking throughout the city with stiff backs and sores on their necks. The pasos also include as many as 2,500 'nazarenos' that march solemnly in their long robes with crosses on their backs and, often, bare feet. The processions can take over nine hours to go through the whole city.
During the day, though people are dressed in their finest mourning clothes, there is still an air of festivity as people press into the streets to see their neighborhood church's procession pass by. Women with black mourning veils hold giant clouds of cotton candy. Freshly made potato chips and candy are sold by street vendors. Their pride is apparent- I was told by at least one person at each paso that this Virgen or this paso was the most beautiful of them all.
But at night, the air is different. On Maundy Thursday, the processions go through the entire night, holding vigil for Jesus' last night. The streets that were difficult to get through during the day become impossible to navigate. After fighting crowds on dark, packed streets, I finally made my way to one of the paso's routes at 2:30 am. I sat on the curb hoping that it was worth it. I was tired and my feet hurt and I still had another forty-five minutes until La Macarena paso was set to pass by the place where I was sitting. From the first nazareno to pass until the last, it would be two full hours. So I sat and waited, thinking about my own feet and discomfort much like the disciples must have waited that night in Gethsemane.
After a while, a hush fell over the crowd that had gathered and the faintest sound of music (let this play in the background) could be heard. Everyone gets to their feet to look down the road, and you can see the shadows from the nazarenos' candles flicker on the buildings lining the street. The nazarenos begin to pass in a slow and steady march, each one hidden behind their hoods, lit up by the candles they are holding. Some are children and have started to fall out of their straight rows from being so tired. The older men carry the crosses and step on the cement with bare feet that are cut and bruised.
The music becomes louder and the paso comes into sight. Above the crowd, the paso shows Jesus standing with two Roman guards at his side, one reading his sentence. Behind him sits Pilate washing his hands with his wife on her knees before him pleading for Jesus. Men dressed as Roman guards escort the paso as a band plays a funereal march on antique horns. The air becomes cloudy and perfumed with incense.
(You can see a video of the paso Cristo de la Sentencia here)
Shortly after, the Virgen de la Macarena comes through, tears on her face and bowed in prayer. The mantle of her dress trailed behind the paso. The mourning clothes that had seemed so out of place in the daylight now fit as the crowd respectfully and silently watches her pass. The women in their mourning veils let their tears fall down their faces without brushing them away.
Later, as I walked back home near dawn, I came across another paso. I stopped just in time to see the paso of Jesus and the two thieves hanging on the cross go by the Catedral as the dawn started to turn the sky pink.
Jesus' Passion was literally played out through the city- His story represented in the majesty and richness that is often forgotten. While He was not robed as a King when He stood in front of Pilate that night, the pasos reminded me that He was our King and God. He was put on the cross with disgust and hate, but each flower, candle and golden artifact and faithful nazareno and casalero painted a vivid picture of how these events were seen from Heaven. He didn't walk to the cross alone, but mourned by multitudes of angels who could see His majesty through the blood even if we could not.