If I turn back the clock a couple of decades, today is the day that no loud noises were allowed at home. Viernes Santo (Good Friday) vinyl records could not be played. My brothers could not play football in the corridor at home and we could not eat meat. It was a day of mourning. The television (with the volume turned down low) showed black and white footage of processions with holy images of Christ and the Virgen Mary. People lined the streets and filled every balcony to watch these sacred images go by. Those participating in the processions belonged to different catholic fraternities and brotherhoods. The colours of their long flowing robes and their individual emblems differed whilst their characteristic tall cone shaped hoods covering their faces and allowing only their eyes to be seen were alike. Those doing a penance for favours asked or received from God might be walking barefoot for miles, making the journey on their knees or whipping their bare backs with knotted ropes. There was blood, pain, devotion and solemnity, broken occasionally by an individual singing a slow sad lament (saetas) to the images as they went by. We were marking the day Christ was crucified for our spiritual salvation. And as a child I witnessed it through the eyes of Franco’s Catholic Spain. To this day I remain more moved, overwhelmed and fearful of the passion, the intensity of emotion, of the people than I am of the Passion of the Christ.
Today’s Spain allows those who wish to go on holiday, make noise or have fun to do so. There is a legal and moral independence of the State from Church interference. But the traditions and the symbolism of the day endure unchanged. The devotion and the passion lives on. As indeed some of the other traditions linked to this Holy Week (Semana Santa). Interestingly, every year a number of prisoners are pardoned by Royal Decree and released from jail. This comes as a result of a petition made by the different fraternities and brotherhoods following a tradition originating in the 18th Century during the reign of Charles III.
The most popular version of the origins of this tradition states that in 1759 the plague hit Malaga so severely that the events of Semana Santa were suspended. The prisoners in Malaga offered to carry the image of Jesus in the procession but their request was denied by the authorities. This resulted in a rebellion and mass escape by the prisoners who did indeed carry the image of Christ in the longest procession ever, after which they returned to their cells. What followed was the sudden disappearance of the plague in Malaga. It was interpreted as a miracle and a blessing thanks to the devout, although somewhat illegal, actions of the prisoners. In appreciation certain cities in Spain were granted the right to appeal for mercy in respect of certain prisoners.
As always there is a fine print. The prisoner must be serving a prison sentence for minor crimes which did not include bloodshed, must have demonstrated exemplary behaviour during their time in prison and must not break the law again within a period of four years. There must be reasons for appeal on the grounds of justice, fairness and/ or public service. Their names if successful are not released to the media, just their initials. Of the sixteen released this year many will take part in the processions with the fraternity or brotherhood which petitioned their release, hooded like everyone else. This year some of those who have been pardoned (indultados) as well as some of those carrying the heavy images are women.
So this Good Friday whether I watch the image of the Christ of Forgiveness, of our Lord Jesus Tied to the Column, of our Lady of Sorrows and our Lady of Hope, I will be enchanted and entranced by the sights and sounds, the devotion and traditions that will mark this day. I will still be watching on tv. And for a combination of reasons that are best left unexplored I will say a quiet prayer and it will be with faith.