The citizens of Costa Rica celebrated the defining event of their spiritual lives yesterday. I was pleased and privileged to join them.
A week of warm up called Santa Semana, Holy Week, brings in the holiday with processions, rites and rituals. Easter is one of few holidays not celebrated here with rolling barrages of fireworks. Drums, not explosions, mark the tempo of Pascua.
The rhythm is a slow, steady tump… tump… tump… tattatattatta… tump… tump… tump. The larger processions include some brass, saxophones, a glockenspiel or two. Crowds chant the rosary in Spanish while they follow a life-sized image of the suffering Jesus carried on the shoulders of a dozen or more men. Homes along the route sport flowers, ribbons, balloons and an occasional impromptu shrine. The week of preparation culminates in the celebration of La Resurrección.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ’s battered, two-day-dead body is what establishes Christianity’s unique selling position. It’s the event that Christians believe lifts Christ’s claim to revealed truth above that of other, equally popular moral teachers. If religion is about dealing with the mystery of death, Christ’s conquest of death clearly defines brand superiority.
The other great teachers had none of Christ’s claims to inside contacts, and certainly didn’t rise from the dead. They didn’t claim exclusivity like Christ does in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The claim of exclusivity annoys many, but exclusive or not, the key ingredient of Christian salvation is faith in the resurrection and the hope it gives mankind.
If it never happened, Christ is a nobody, regardless of his qualities as a moral teacher. If he didn’t get up out of his tomb, Christianity is a fraud. In Christian theology, it is the resurrection of the flesh that redeems the spirit; the return to life makes everything new and gives all-important hope to the living. Hope drives all that’s best in the human enterprise.
Famous Christians like St. Paul agree, “…if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (I Cor. 14:15) Saint Augustine described Christians as well as well as they can be described, “We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.”
On Easter morning, I was an unbeliever among the faithful wandering Parque Central in San Jose. A popular haven for preachers, I had never seen it so busy. A semi-pro in brown and white monks’ robes held a white, rubber-tipped staff. He preached in the northwest corner, in loud, sonorous Spanish.
The amateurs at my favorite spot in the shade fifty yards away practically had to take numbers. There were at least four, a woman in a yellow flowered blouse, a man with a Bible and a toolbox, a man dressed in an electric blue jumpsuit, and a short guy with a guitar. They took turns declaring the glory of Jesu Cristo to a spotty crowd. They seemed to have an agreement about how long each would speak and in what order.
In the Cathedral at the end of the park Masses were being said end to end. The building is enormous, big as, well… big as a cathedral. Spectacular stained glass windows washed the congregation in a soft gold light. There were hundreds of people in the church, coming and going at random. Kids played in the side isles. The priest had a strong voice and a powerful PA system. His bald head gleamed in the gold light. His gold vestments matched the light perfectly.
I arrived as the candles were set on the alter for a High Mass. The warm-up praying, preaching and singing was steady. I was surprised to recognize familiar folk tunes. They sang “When the Saints Go Marching In,” without the New Orleans bounce and with strange Spanish lyrics. There was no Miguel in “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore.” “Rock of Ages” seemed oddly out of place in a Catholic church. Between songs there was a lot of talk of vida, sangre, cuerpo y alma. Life, blood, body and soul. The Spanish had the mysterious appeal of the Latin rituals of my childhood.
Praying and singing moved seamlessly into the Mass. The priest chanted his lines in a high, clear tenor, in the Gregorian style. The congregation replied in kind. The sound echoed dreamily in the vaulted stone.
There were no hymnals. Enough people knew the responses to carry the timid along. Tears were wiped from a few eyes at the Mass’ climax when wine and bread became blood and flesh.
The priest sang, one by one, the revealed truths of Christianity. After each a thousand voices sang a seven-note reply, “Cray-ay-o, yo Cray-ay-o” I believe, I do believe.
A little later St. Thomas’ Easter people sang their song. They sang a sweet, soft Alleluia in reply to the priest’s chant. Each time they replied they sang it three times ─ three soft, four-note alleluias, the second and third slight variations of the first. Everyone knew the notes. They sang a full, strong, delicious chord. They made a peaceful, buoyant, joyous sound. It flooded the enormous room as only a thousand hopeful voices can.
I lamented the cynical lack of faith that kept me apart from the Easter people, but was glad they graciously pretended not to notice. I left before the end of the Mass feeling strangely hopeful, quietly humming their song.