“Who is that man?” my son asks as soon as we arrive.
The man playing Jesus is wearing a white tunic. There is fake blood on his face.
I take a deep breath and leap.
“Do you remember at Christmastime when we talked about a special baby?”
My son beheaded one ceramic Baby Jesus out of a Christmas party nativity scene and there were consequences, so he does remember.
“This man is pretending to be that special baby after he grew up.”
Other men dressed as soldiers begin whipping Jesus. My son’s blue eyes go large.
“Why are they hitting?” he asks.
The events around us are happening in Spanish, but the biggest challenge will be translating Good Friday into toddler.
Morelia, like most of Mexico, takes Semana Santa very seriously. This was suggested to me by the full two weeks that schools are closed in honor of this one holy week. Stepping out for the Good Friday parade we encountered not the usual line up of fire trucks and charros in big hats riding very nice horses indeed, but a reenactment of Christ’s passion.
For the length of one avenue, with a priest narrating at intervals representing each station of the cross, a crowd walked with Jesus. In some senses, it was a normal parade: ice cream vendors sold lemon ices, church members held out hats for donations, people snapped pictures. But whips cracked and wood dragged over stone. The air smelled like incense and sweat.
Okay, confession time. We don’t go to church. If we were to go to church, I don’t even know what denominational door we would darken (I went to a few Quaker meetings as a child, Unitarianism was the bulk of my slim religious education, and even that was mostly in how to play the hand bells, yet my sister insists we’re Episcopalian, whatever that is). Most of my knowledge of the Bible I came to through Milton.
But we’re parents now and we don’t intend to indoctrinate our children in any particular way of thinking, not even in our own ambivalence. We know that our children will have questions. We know that we won’t have answers. But while my husband and I run short on faith in divinity, we have abundant awe for the power of story.
Before us in the street where my son goes go school, we are witnessing, however bad the acting and squeaky the microphones, one of the keystone stories of our culture. And so it becomes a special day for us as a family. Building on foundations laid back in December (the special baby grew up to be an important teacher), and aided by those of us around us who are so clearly not ambivalent, we initiate our son to the greatest story ever told.
My son is afraid of the soldiers. He wants to know why there is smoke. He looks for Jesus’s mama, played by a woman in a black headscarf who looks genuinely sad.
I tell him that the king is jealous because people listen to Jesus and not to him. I tell him that Jesus will not fight the men who hit him because he believes in peace and kindness. I tell him that Jesus is never mean.
But I leave a lot out. Above all, I leave out God. For now, Jesus is enough.
Oh, and when the ambulatory show reaches the plaza where a cross has been erected on a stage, we slip away from the crowd and cross the street to the park.