Centurions in sandals and sneakers throw their arms around toga-wearing thieves. A small girl in the costume of a Jerusalemite tugs on her scarf excitedly as a soldier holding a spear jokes with her. The mood is jovial in the parking lot of St. Mary of the Valley Catholic Church as old friends greet each other and help adjust robes and helmets.
Then the hour arrives — 6 p.m. on Good Friday. “OK, vamanos! Vamanos!” Maggie Giron shouts. The grins fade and the crowd separates. It’s time for the living Stations of the Cross — a 14-stage devotional depicting the arrest, torture and death of Jesus Christ.
While Giron and Irma Díaz narrated and led hymns and prayers, Salvador Espino Cruz, portraying Jesus Christ for roughly the eighth year, is betrayed, arrested, condemned, whipped and fitted with his crown of thorns.
In steps echoing Jesus’ tortured walk to the cross, Cruz and his fellow performers enact the Passion as they circle the parking lot. In the end, Cruz and two other men are raised on crosses in a field while a circle of centurions stands guard. The crowd prays as Jesus dies, is taken down and placed in his tomb.
Through their enactment of the Via Cruces, or Way of the Cross, the parishioners are also following the steps of their ancestors.
“I’m from Mexico and it’s a big tradition. In Mexico, they do it everywhere,” Giron said before the performance began. “It’s very important for our Catholic faith.”
Giron runs the Hispanic Community of St. Mary’s, which enacts the stations each year. About 20 people actively participate, rehearsing for two months before donning their costumes and circling the parking lot of the Catholic church complex.
Carlos Camacho portrays the Apostle Peter. “We’re joking, laughing, but we’ve been crying most of the day,” he said before the play started. “Earlier, we had the seven last words of Jesus, which is a very deep reflection.”
During the devotional, worshipers meditate on the seven final expressions said by Jesus on the cross, beginning with, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
“As we meditate on the seven last words, the deacon puts out a candle for each one,” Camacho explained.
The night before, some of them took part in the traditional vigil and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament held in the dark hours before Easter.
“We have something as Catholics called Triduum, the three days before Easter Sunday. These three days we have to prepare ourselves for the resurrection of our lord,” Camacho said. “As Catholics, it’s important to stay in prayer, and prayer is not just individual, but communal.”
The living Stations of the Cross relies on the strength of that communal faith. The Hispanic Community of St. Mary, about 100 families strong by Giron’s reckoning, holds weekly Bible studies and Rosaries. It’s a community built on generations of faithful ritual and fellowship.
Ramon Echeverria remembers seeing his friends and family take part in the Stations when he was a child. Now, he portrays one of the centurions.
“It’s part of heritage, Spanish culture,” he said.
“These things make a nice community. … This is like a big family.”
Delfino Tagle, who portrays one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus, made the crosses. Echeverria’s wife helped with many of the costumes.
Bubbling and steaming in the kitchen are pots filled with garbanzo bean patties in chile sauce, Spanish rice and tortas de cameron with nopales — vegetarian and fish meals that keep with dietary rules for Fridays and Lent.
Women popped in to place more containers of ceviche and veggie patties into the refrigerator.
“They all donate food. Everybody donates something,” said George Rangel, a volunteer cook with St. Mary’s.
After the portrayal, they’ll all get together to dine.
“Everybody brings something to eat,” said Echeverria. It’s tradition.”
The practice extends to the Stations of the Cross itself. Delfino Tagle, who portrays one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus, made the crosses. The participating women, including Echeverria’s wife, make the costumes.
At 7 years old, Nenetsy Cardona was participating in the living Stations for the first time this year. Her mom, grandma and older sister are also portraying women witnessing the Passion of the Christ. Wearing a deep blue gown made by her grandmother, Nenetsy quietly said that she liked the experience.
“I learned about Jesus … that they didn’t believe him,” she said.
“This is one of the happiest things, to pass on the traditions,” Echeverria said, gesturing to the little girl.