It was getting on towards 6 pm. I was walking down the main street of this Zapotec Mexican town, looking for the turquoise store that sells roasted chickens.
I smelled incense. I've smelled a lot of things here, but this was new. There on my left, in front of the pharmacy, was a small table covered by a beautiful white tablecloth. Pungent incense smoldered from a green pottery urn, and on either side were two vases of fresh flowers. In the center of the display was a Catholic cross with the crucified Christ, and above it all a hand-lettered sign that said (in Spanish): Station 10, Jesus is stripped of his clothing.
Up ahead I heard voices. A small group of believers had surrounded a similar table in front of the hardware store farther down the street. Station 9. A young man was reading the account of Jesus' long and difficult walk along the Via Dolorosa, where he carried his cross to Golgotha.
A group of twenty women approached, walking down the middle of the street side by side singing hymns. Men and women out shopping stopped at each of the 14 stations and offered a nod or a quick prayer. Passersby who didn't stop, even children riding their bicycles, made the sign of the cross as they approached each memorial.
Each Friday during Lent, the Christian season leading up to Easter, the stations of the cross will be on public display on the streets of this town and many like it.
They remind us that Easter is coming. They memorialize the crucified Christ. And by having them out on a public avenue, they remind us of the Christian belief that Christ rose from the dead and lives in the hearts of believers everywhere, even in a hot, dusty town in southern Mexico.
We mostly memorialize happier events: birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmas. Lent is a uniquely somber occasion, a time of introspection and reflection. In the US, Memorial Day may be the only holiday with a similar focus. Just as we decorate cemeteries to honor the young men and women who have died in war, Lent puts us in the proper frame of mind to honor the innocent Lamb of God who laid down His life to save us from ourselves.
I imagine this sort of public religious display would make people uncomfortable in the US. I imagine it makes a few people uncomfortable here, too.
But the execution of Christ was itself a public event a public spectacle, even. His ministry was always out in the open, on the streets, in the fields, not hidden behind the heavy doors of a church or cathedral. Why should we hide our faith from others?
Religious devotion belongs in the business district, the office, the shopping mall and the university campus wherever the nitty-gritty of real life is happening.
So it felt right to me, smelling incense and hearing prayers as I walked past the familiar stores. It felt right to remember the cross and the empty tomb right out in the open where it all happened in the first place.
Christ came to walk the streets. And if Easter really happened, he walks these streets today.
Photo credit: RDW Glassworks, Stations of the Cross stained glass window from Glasgow, Scotland.