By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – A breeze stirred, cooling the crowd outside St. James Catholic Church, as Pontius Pilate washed his hands and handed Jesus over to be crucified.
Nemesi Medina, portraying the Roman procurator, dipped his hands into a bowl, then pushed Alejandro Cruz, who portrayed Jesus, into the hands of the soldiers.
“Vamos, el rey,” the soldiers shouted. “Let’s go, king.” The Hispanic community at St. James began the first of 14 meditations, acted out in full costume, commemorating Jesus’ final walk to Calvary.
Themes of justice and ethnic identity were woven into the Good Friday service, fitting for the dramatic portrayal of a Jew tortured at the hands of Romans, and, perhaps, for an immigrant people trying to find their place in American society.
“In the church, nobody is a stranger,” said Lee Oswalt, reading the words of Pope John Paul II during the opening invocation.
One of the soldiers, Aldofo Zuniga, was merciless to Jesus, striking him again and again with a whip and taunting him like a lame animal. Other soldiers, portrayed by small children, busied themselves whipping each other and laughing.
Easter in Mississippi came into full focus as, under a magnolia on the western edge of the church property, the soldiers forced Simon of Cyrene, played by Juan Almanza, to help Jesus carry his cross.
“We adore you, oh Christ, and we praise you,” the crowd recited at each station. “Because by your cross you have redeemed the world.”
Midway through the drama the clouds dissolved, opening onto a high, bright blue sky. The crowd of more than 100 people, mostly Spanish-speaking, followed Jesus and his tormentors clockwise, moving south to north around the property.
Unable to continue, Jesus lay sprawled on the concrete. The soldiers snatched him up, and women ran from the north to cool his face.
Then the final march began. Cruz faced north, descending the hill toward a place prepared under the shade of a giant oak.
In what seemed an all-too-real fiction, the soldiers lashed Cruz to a 20-foot high cross, then, using thick ropes, raised him high in front of the crowd.
On his right they crucified Jose Luis Segura, and, on his left, Leonel Blanco.
One soldier dipped a sponge and tried to make Cruz drink. Women gathered the foot of the cross as the soldiers taunted and jeered.
Cruz then spoke in very convincing Aramaic, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
A soldier thrust a spear into Jesus’ side, leaving a red gash, a clever trick with paint smeared on the opposite side of the weapon. Then, in what one imagines was exactly the way it happened, the soldiers wound the dead Galilean in a long piece of cloth and lowered him, bruised and broken, from the cross.
“Lord, help us to be free from the fear that paralyzes our ability to love our neighbor, to speak out against injustice,” the narrator said as Jesus’ followers laid his limp body in the tomb.
One of the little soldiers, 7-year-old Eric Hernandez, now out of character, reflected upon the drama as he ascended the hill for a closing service.
“It makes your faith matter,” he said, the pleats of his little Roman skirt blowing in the wind. “It makes Jesus happy.”
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.