The Thursday before Easter is a special day in Bolivia. Not only does it signify the Last Supper between Jesus and his disciples, but it also is part of a religious ritual for Bolivians. This night almost all churches are opened and have special services. Altars are decorated with mass amounts of flowers. Candles are lit throughout the sanctuary. In some churches, there are scenes laid out with symbols of Jesus’s last supper, betrayal, and death on the cross. Bolivians go from church to church in remembrance of Jesus’s journey to the cross. Most people go to at least seven churches; seven because it is the holy number, although many people go to more. At each church, people go in, bless themselves, and pray for a few minutes. There are over 50 churches in Cochabamba itself.
I went with my friend, Alexis, her husband, David, and his mother, aunt, and cousin. It was a very solemn and reverent time. The first church we went to was the church that Alexis and David attend. It is a large church with beautiful statues and carvings. There was a small choir that alternated with a violinist and pianist. It was an angelic sound listening to the notes ascending and echoing throughout the church. As we walked around looking at the ornate statues, I looked at the many people crowding into the church. There were people who were well dressed and others who just stepped off of the streets. Both types of people were considered equals in this experience. Both classes were simply coming to experience this ritual.
We walked outside where there were street vendors selling candied apples, Easter treats, and pictures of relics. Beggars took the opportunity of mass crowds to beg for money. Children without shoes or little clothing stood beside their parents, hoping to earn something. There was even an Easter bunny, which seemed quite out of place among the religious artifacts and atmosphere.
As we traveled to the next church, David explained that this ritual of church traveling was seen only in South America, not in Spain or Europe. South America is a very religious part of the world and many Latinos take pride in their Catholic heritage.
Each church we visited (we went to about five in all) was different in its own way. One church was unique. Although it was decorated beautifully, the service reminded me of my own church. There was a small band made up of drums, guitars, cymbals, and singers who were playing modernized songs. In between songs, a group of people sitting in front of the altar took turns praying. Many times they would ramble on and undulate sounds. I later found out that this was a charismatic Catholic church. I was very surprised as I had not known that Catholics could be charismatic, however, I learned that Catholics were the first denomination to have charismatic sects. In this church, people believed that the Holy Spirit came upon them and spoke through them through sounds and noises. Whether this is actually true is another thing. Although it is in the Bible and there are eyewitness accounts of this happening, I find it strange and almost sketchy at times. Who is to say that people aren’t just saying random sounds and then making people believe what they want?
There was another church we visited that was very simply decorated, yet still elegant in its manner. This church actually doubled as a home for the elderly. It definitely had an “old person smell” that resonated throughout the chapel, yet was very quaint. The altar was decorated with an abundance of flowers and had symbols laid out: 30 pieces of silver, the bread and wine, a basin and towel symbolizing Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. It was a reverent and haunting scene.
This experience as a whole was a wonderful one for me. As a lover of history and culture, it was interesting to see how other countries experience the Easter week, or holy week. It was interesting that Bolivia did not inherit this ritual from Spain, but rather, was its own entity; or rather, was a part of a region that began its own ritual. Because I love looking at old churches and cathedrals (yes, I admit I’m weird), I loved looking at the differences in each building. The artifacts and statues, the paintings, the ornaments and moldings of each church helped give it its own flare and uniqueness. Although Bolivia may be predominantly Catholic, which is different from my Protestant upbringing, it was still a wonderful and cultural experience; one that I hope I never forget. As each future Easter comes, I hope that I can look back on this ritual and it may enhance my own Easter time.