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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Wyles

Semana Santa '22 // Holy Week '22

Happy Easter! I learned rather recently that the season of Easter lasts 50 whole days– starting with the Resurrection and ending on Pentecost– and that means the party just keeps on goin’! Last week was another eventful one as we celebrated Holy Week and it was such a unique experience to be in Latin America during this time and be a part of some of the traditions that they celebrate here in Bolivia.

This blog post is going to be a bit longer & a bit more religiously-detailed than it usually is, but I figure that if I’m going to talk about Holy Week then I should probably include some explanation with it! Especially because I know that most of my friends and family aren’t Catholic, and I don’t want to appear to be speaking in some secret-Catholic-lingo-code that I know it can come off as sometimes. A lot of the things I’ve typed about here are things I’ve learned about rather recently, so if there’s something in here that you want to comment, clarify, or add onto, PLEASE feel more than free to leave a comment below!

Holy Monday and Tuesday were normal school days here but on Wednesday the festivities began! The biggest difference for me was how much we went to mass. There are definitely plenty of Catholics in the U.S. who go to mass daily during Holy Week, but I personally hadn’t done this before so it was a change. Here at the hogar, we normally go to mass on Wednesday nights and this time a bunch of us stayed late in the church for a couple of hours to decorate for the bigger celebrations to come starting the next day.

On Thursday we remembered and celebrated the Last Supper at mass. For whatever reason, I really *felt* the story of the Last Supper this year. I can’t imagine sitting at that table with Jesus on His last day. On occasion I’ve pondered what it would be like to have been alive when Jesus was, but then I’m kinda thankful that I wasn’t because it would be so terrifying to sit at that table when he said “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me” (Matthew 26:21). Would that have been me? And when He said, “Take and eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26), would I have thought He was messing with me? Or would I have believed Him?

On Good Friday we started out with a procession around town where we reflected & prayed on the Stations of the Cross. I looked up a quick definition for “Stations of the Cross” for anyone curious and it reads, “a 14-step Catholic devotion that represents successive incidents during Jesus' progress from his condemnation by Pilate to his crucifixion and burial”. It’s basically a biblical recount & meditation on Jesus’ last days on Earth as a man.

But anyways, we walked around town in a procession and each station was represented by an altar that was set up at a community member’s house. It was so beautiful to see different people from the same community up before sunrise in prayer and recognition of this solemn day. And the little ones were less rambunctious than I think we all expected them to be.

Later that day, at 3 pm, we attended another service called the Veneration of the Cross. Again, this is something that is done in the U.S. as well, so this isn’t Bolivia-specific. During this service, a cross is displayed at the front of the church and each person has the opportunity to walk up one by one and offer a gesture of respect to all that it represents. To be honest, after 3 days in a row of mass and waking up extra early, we were all a little schwemish and minds were elsewhere during this service. But honestly, I think that’s reallyyyy ironic and symbolic. We were all anxious to get out of the church and onto our own things on the day that our flaws are brought to the forefront of our minds with the crucifixion.

I don’t have many pictures of the rest of the day, but we honestly had such a wholesome evening that night. The traditional food to eat on Good Friday here is called “biscocho” and it’s a sort of pan dulce, or sweet bread. It is soooo yummy. We then spent a lot of the evening laughing together in the kitchen as we made a truckload of popcorn for the movie we would watch later. But at some point, the several girls who have turned 18, left the hogar, and gone to live in our nearby transition house called the Casa San Miguel– ended up coming to the hogar to visit and a huge game of futbol, or soccer, broke out! All of the “hogar girls” were on one team and all of the “Casa San Miguel girls” on the other. From an outsider’s perspective, it was such a beautiful representation of where these girls come from, what they’ve gone through together, and the times that they come back to remember. And as the sun went down and the only light shining on the game came from the moon and the stars, everyone seemed to be feeling that too. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, maybe I’m not.

After a super fun game of futbol, we ended up watching “The Passion of the Christ”, a movie that depicts the New Testament story of Christ’s crucifixion. Watching this movie with the girls was definitely a stark contrast to the light-hearted joy that we were experiencing earlier in the evening, but the girls all looked forward to watching the movie and it definitely reminded us of why we celebrate so much on Easter Sunday.

Thennn… us volunteers ended the night by stuffing Easter eggs that we would hide the following night :)

Holy Saturday is the day of waiting before the resurrection on Sunday. Catholics believe that on this day, “Christ descended into hell to free all the souls who had died since the beginning of the world and allow the trapped righteous souls to reach heaven”. This is something that I learned this year. It’s something that I honestly didn’t know my faith believed in. Always & always learning!!

Saturday is our free day as volunteers, so it was spent in the city. We spent a good amount of time at a coffee shop, as we normally do, reading & researching things & calling friends and family, and then went out to a nice dinner to celebrate Easter on our own as volunteers.

And then we ended the night at the Easter Vigil at the city’s main cathedral! The Easter Vigil is a mass held on the Saturday night before Easter. This mass is the culmination of the 40-day period of Lent where Catholics are called to prepare themselves for Easter through prayer, almsgiving, self-denial, etc…. I gave up sweets & Instagram. It sucked. And I was not perfect. But ayyyyye that’s human life am I right?

But anyway, during the Vigil, you participate in a beautiful service of darkness turned to light! The mass starts in darkness– no lights, no candles, nothing. We all start together outside the church and then walk in together with unlit candles in hand. And before we sit down, one person’s candle is lit and they pass the flame back to the next person and before you know it, the mass is glowing with everyone’s lit candle which represents the light that Christ brought to the world. In the Easter Vigil we heard even more passages from the Bible than usual and later we have baptisms and confirmations. And then the mass is concluded with the offering of the bread and wine which is turned into the Body and Blood of Christ, as Jesus did at the Last Supper.

After this much-longer-than-usual service (2.5 hours!), we made our way back to the hogar and got back when all the girls were fast asleep, which was perfect for hiding Easter eggs. Sunday morning was a joyful one. We used some of our recently-received donations (Thank you friends & family!!!!!!!!!!!!) to buy salteñas for the girls to celebrate the day. Salteñas are a traditional Bolivian food (aka my new favorite food ever) that are made with a sweet dough and filled with chicken, potatoes, spices, and a sweet juice. We all got dressed up, attended mass, took some pretty pictures, ate lots of good food, and had an Easter egg hunt.

It was a long week, but a Good one. However, I was very glad to get back to a “normal” week after all of the excitement and running around.

Well, if you made it this far and you are Catholic, I would love to hear your comments on what I’ve written & anything that I may have gotten mixed up. And if you made it this far and are not Catholic, I hope that I did a decent job at explaining some of the traditions of my faith.

As usual, thank you so much for reading! And Happy Easter!

the infamous SALTENAS (*insert heart eyes emoji*)

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