It’s not Jesus plus anything. Not Jesus plus good works. Not Jesus plus confirmation in the Catholic Church. It’s Jesus alone who saves. As a missionary in Latin America, though, I’m frequently reminded that the gospel is often muddled in a stew of biblical and unbiblical practices – and sometimes it’s really hard to tell which is which.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Latin America is characterized by a mix of religious ceremony, processions and traditions combined with spring break-style travel and partying. Tarma, Peru, has become one of the hottest travel destinations for Peruvians and foreign travelers during Semana Santa, mainly due to the elaborate floral carpets created on the streets in the main plaza.
Everything starts on Palm Sunday, a week before Easter, with an evening procession. Several hundred people wave palm branches and stop at different stations around the plaza. They participate in liturgical readings, recite the Lord’s Prayer and pray to the Virgin Mary.
Then, every night that week, a different shrine to a “lord” or “virgin” is paraded through the streets, carried on the shoulders of those faithful to him or her. Lord of the Garden. Lord of the Nazarene.
Good Friday is the main event. The floral carpets are prepared on the streets around the plaza. The streets are roped off in advance, and different communities and groups are assigned a spot for their carpet. In the afternoon, starting with chalk, each group marks out their design. Designs tend to be scenes of the countryside, hummingbirds (the symbol of Tarma) or geometric shapes.
After outlining the edges with wet coffee grounds, the groups use buckets of flower petals, separated by color, to fill in the designs. The carpets are beautiful but soon are crushed by the procession, which starts as the sun goes down over the mountains around 6:30 pm.
After the procession passes, many people scramble to collect the trampled flowers, considered to be good luck. Street cleaners have the final work of leaving the plaza in its normal state.
At midnight before the dawn of Easter morning, a second round of carpets is prepared for the resurrection procession at 6:00 am. At dawn, a woman portraying Mary comes out of the cathedral and takes off her black veil of mourning – Jesus is alive!
As missionaries from other cultural backgrounds, we can appreciate the shared belief in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The other traditions awaken curiosity, and sometimes confusion, as we wonder “Where did that come from?”
Peruvian evangelicals tend to consider the entire celebration pagan, avoiding involvement and rejecting the drinking and partying that follow most processions and can last for several days. And for many (Christian or not), even if they don’t consciously realize it, syncretism (in this case, the mixing of biblical truth and pagan practices) results in confusion. It seems like Jesus alone is not enough.
This year, the Easter processions and traditions weren’t the only reminders for me that syncretism confuses the hearts and minds of the Peruvians. I also saw the confusion surface amongst the youth in Tarma as they interacted with some visitors from Lima.
Testimonies, questions and clarity
Before moving to Tarma in 2009, I served in Lima, Peru, at Los Pilares EFC for six years as the youth leader. Now, many of my former students are in college and working, and four of them came to visit me in Tarma during the Easter weekend. While they were visiting, I asked if they could spend some time with the youth in Tarma.
Now strong Christian leaders at Los Pilares EFC, each of my former students has a powerful testimony to share. Testimonies of difficult pasts, periods of spiritual uncertainty or rebellion, and breaks with the prevailing Catholic tradition. Testimonies declaring Jesus as the one and only way to salvation and reconciliation to God.
As these passionate twenty-somethings from Lima shared their faith stories with the teenagers in Tarma, we could hear the Tarma students’ confusion about what it means to believe in Christ. What about being a good person? What about church tradition? We clarified the significance of baptism and confirmation, but we emphasized the truth that only Jesus saves.
In spending just two afternoons with the Lima group, the Tarma youth opened up to their new friends, inviting them back to Tarma to spend more time with them.
For these teenagers, in the middle of Semana Santa – a week where the beauty of the resurrection can often be muddied – they received a clear, beautiful picture of hope and the power of the cross. We drew the best from Easter tradition, national vacation and the Scriptures to celebrate what Easter really means – Jesus is alive.
Story by Meredith, EFCA ReachGlobal missionary in Tarma, Peru
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- For the youth (and the community) in Tarma to clearly see, understand and accept the gospel.
- For Meredith and her teammates in Tarma — that they would persist in their ministry and make headway, gaining ground for Christ in a difficult field of ministry.
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