I walk to Lupe’s house at eight, happy that the weather’s cooled. Easter Vigil feels long enough playing American rules without worrying about pit stains. We start a half-hour late, but I don’t mind. Lupe has been talking about the procession and the Mass as if they’ve got no time limit, as though they only end when you give up and walk out. ¡A ver si nos aguanta! She screams at intervals.
We start the walk across town without our friend Elvia, who’s running even later than us. Women with canes and rebozos trundle alongside, candles at the ready. I ask Lupe if only women go to the procession. No, she tells me. It’s for everyone.
The fair starts tomorrow and half the town is already partying. The frantic one two one two polka sound of banda music pours out of trucks and houses. Stoops are full of young men drinking from forty-ounces and eyeing us in the wary way that young people have here.
We make it at eight forty for an eight thirty curtain, but the priest is nowhere to be seen and neither are most of the people. Don’t worry, Lupe says, they’ll be here. And see, guys come too, she adds, sweeping a hand at the few stooped and silent men. I nod and keep looking around when she taps me again. Esta vela se prenderá para la Pascua, she says, as if it were a secret.
I know, Lupe, I say. I’m Catholic, remember.
The priest arrives in a pickup and the loitering crowd starts to gather. A man I know gets out and has trouble running a mic cord from the sound equipment in the bed. His parents are cousins, but a fall from a ladder in the States is what has made him quiet and simple. The people shuffle, unwilling to give up their spaces. Eventually they part and the mic makes it through. Middle aged nuns unfold vestments.
As the priest dresses, I see more folks I know. Elvia shoulders through to us and one of my kids sifts coals from the bonfire to fuel the censer. Perfume wafts. The cousin of a friend shows up and we spend some minutes talking. We’re sheepish—we met dancing the night before. I do not think she knows I kissed her sister on a different day. I don’t mention it.
The speakers squeal into action and the priest explains the proceedings. Each year, Catholics light the Pascal candle to represent the light of Christ until the following Good Friday, when it will be extinguished at the hour of his death and relit, as we are lighting it, in the early hours of Easter Sunday, when his body disappeared from the tomb.
It, he continues, will be lit for the administration of all sacraments during the year. I almost ask Lupe what everyone here will do with the ones they’ve brought—in the States, you get yours for the mass and turn it back in—but he interrupts. In your homes, he says, you can light them during a storm, or—he seems as puzzled as I as to why they’re all clutching so expectantly—or during other times when you are scared. Good save, I think.
He describes the cross and figures that ought to be on each. Old women who have forgotten there’s a written portion glance around and start chipping away with fingernails. At the top is an A, he says, and I wonder if he’ll say horseshoe for Omega. He pauses and I can see the wheels turn. And…at the bottom an O. The unprepared start to look desperate before Lupe saves the ones around us with a few smugly handed pens.
The priest, through mass first communions, noisy services, and baptisms with only half the required parentage, has always struck me as more patient and kind than I would be. I guess that’s the point.
At the end of his lecture, the priest motions for the main event, and two burly helpers lower the four-foot candle so he can light it with a taper from the bonfire. The crowd presses forward. I ask Lupe if they all light from the big one. No, she says, and I’m gratified. The passing of the light is the prettiest part of all this, and I think maybe more appropriately symbolic than sending off to central offices.
We strike into surprising motion, each part of the assembly rousing itself as the priest makes his way past. As I watch him I catch a glance of the sister. She’s behind me and to the left. She must have noticed me, but when I look at her and waggle my head, she evades and stares just away. I see that Lupe’s gone, twenty people ahead of me, and as I start to walk I try the sister again. She’s not more than a yard or two from me, but she peers in the other direction with what I know is a squinty, studying look. Her cousin told me she’d been like this. I thought we’d had a good time.
Getting back to Lupe is harder than it ought to be. Tiny children lurk underfoot and tinier crones walk in lockstep, candles held ahead like an offering. I take a couple minutes to catch up, and Lupe turns to me with wild eyes. Stay with me, she says, and starts off in pursuit of the priest, maybe twenty feet ahead. I do my best, but the procession is more Hobbesian than Christian, and wicked elbows are backed up by ill-made and wild-flamed candles.
Mexican wyrd sisters cut me off and close ranks, loath to give ground. As far as I can tell, the front of the parade’s the same as the back, but they’ll fight me for it. Most have slotted a plastic cup or Styrofoam plate over their candle to keep the wax at bay. But for want of patience or penance, many of the older women are weathering a tide of melt, and by the time we reach our first rallying point, their gnarled fingers are caked and dripping.
Lupe tells me to keep up again when I make it to her. I raise my eyebrows and indicate the elderly around me. She throws a faux shoulder and giggles. I shrug and keep moving, but after another hundred yards, I start jostling for position. I don’t care how close I am to the priest, but if I lose Lupe I’ve lost my entertainment.
I’ve got no candle, just a missal and a box of matches, so I’m nimble, but I have no threatening flame to guide my way through the shadow of the valley of viejas.
When we reach the mission courtyard at ten, we disperse to what seem like pre-arranged positions andI wonder what the race was for. I turn just as I step through the archway, and looking at the tide of tiny flames coming up the hill, I decide that Catholic or not this was worth it. I know Lupe’s happy too, since I missed the mock-up crucifixion the day before.
My Spanish is good enough to take a sermon, but church services have been plagued with kids and bad speakers and echoing heights, so as we sit on the steps of the mission, I crack open my missal and find the Vigil.
It has instructions for an abridged service, but as if to answer a question, the priest explains that we will be doing all ten readings and that we ought to imagine how it used to be, when there were twenty-four or more. I skim the first few, and read that they will tell the story of God’s people through the ages. I settle in for comfortably narrative scripture, but by the fifth or sixth, we’ve waded into law-giving and prophecy, and sometimes even the written Spanish stumps me.
I spend awhile looking for girls I know, but I only see a couple of my students, so I give it up. In the endless rounds of sitting and standing, a gout splashes from Lupe’s candle to my boot. I look down. I haven’t waxed them for a while. I figure it’s alright.
The Spanish liturgy makes me long for a familiar Christ is risen, hallelujah, hallelujah. I think back to last Easter. Beautiful, even through the no-longer-so-new and ugly liturgy. I remember a post from the altar boy community at Georgetown making fun of people who don’t say the new words right. I sigh and study the Spanish some more. When your dubious faith is hanging on ritual, you wish the ritual were prettier.
When we get to the baptisms, twenty kids trudge circumspect to the front, purple-robed and cramped in the small space behind the font. Women everywhere pull out bottles and pitchers from their purses and hold them up. To be blessed, Lupe says. I ask her what they’ll use it for. To bless their houses, she informs me. Or, you know, anything. I nod as if that made sense. She says she doesn’t have a bottle because last year her daughter Monica drank her holy water. ¡Se tomó todo! She screams over the hush of the service. I imagine she left it on the table.
The baptisms are endless, and after we’ve renewed our vows, I settle into uncomfortable boredom, shifting from one assbone to the other on the stone. I think about girls. I pray halfheartedly for one as good for me as the last one was. Towards the end of the act, Lupe and the women around us start to whisper. When I look up, the cue goes to a player too old for the part, one whose parents let purgatory stay in play until confirmation age. The chisme is vindictive. I figure that everyone makes their own fun.
When it’s over with, we’re past midnight. Lupe taps me as the saved make their way back and says that the regular mass starts now. I already know—I read ahead—but I make a surprised face and grimace when she turns to share her mirth with Elvia. The collection comes our way and Lupe starts to get restless and peek around. ¿Qué? I ask, and she says she’s hunting for someone to invite her to eat after the service ends.
As mass winds down, the horde melts away, giving into fatigue and the unamerican unwillingness to take communion unconfessed. Lupe eyes them. ¿Eres confirmado? She asks.
Yes Lupe, I say, confirmed, baptized, and gone to first communion. Ya te dije que soy Católico.
All those people were Catholic, she grins, and jerks an elbow at the newly shriven. I chuckle in spite of myself and nod.
When the time comes, she asks if I’ll take the bread, and I say yes. I ask her why she doesn’t and she says she hasn’t been to confession. While we wait, I consider two years’ buildup of mortal and venial sin and decide it’s probably uncommunicable. I keep my seat and resolve to learn the Act of Contrition in Spanish. As the recipients find their places again, the priest wraps up the blessings. Lupe stretches. We made it, she says, and pats me on the back. I look hopefully for signs that someone will have us in for tamales, but by the time we make it to her door, I know I’ll be waiting until the morning.
I say my goodbyes and start whistling a hymn. When I reach the dark, unpopulated dirt road before our house, I let out a feeble His triumphant holy day and the attendant Hallelujah! and let it rest.
Up on the roof I smoke quietly. It’s late enough that my favorite constellations have run down the other side of the sky. I try to think deep thoughts, but I can’t, so I sigh and climb back down. Lupe’s going to church again tomorrow, but I think I’ll give it a miss.