Is Argentina on your travel bucket list? It should be.
The reasons are many — Buenos Aires and its rich cultural draw, Patagonia’s Tierra del Fuego National Park, Mendoza and its Malbec vineyards, the Valdés Peninsula, and the Iguazu Falls to name a few, and I could go on with another dozen names. Luján doesn’t ring a bell for many, it certainly didn’t for me. Atlas Obscura suitably lists an obscure cemetery and a neo-Gothic countryside castle as Luján’s main draws. Yet, just 45 miles away from Buenos Aires lies Argentina’s most important and biggest shrine, the Basilica of Our Lady of Luján, the Patroness of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
So a visit to Luján came as a quick and cogent proposition from local photographer and friend, Bernardo Galmarini, as a viable way to spend Good Friday when much of Buenos Aires seemed to be operating a notch below first gear. “I’ve never seen Via Crucis in Luján, but I hear it is special,” he remarked. A spontaneous decision and some seventy odd minutes later, our trio crossed over Luján’s namesake river, with two massive spires of the Basilica emerging in the distance. Yet, that is not where we were headed. A few veiled turns later, our car could go no further and we found ourselves right in the middle of what could be a forest in Jerusalem.
For the uninitiated, like I clearly was, it took a few minutes to realize that this was an enactment of Christ’s final walk to Calvary, the site of his crucifixion. Okay, so professional actors who probably do this every year? Not quite. Via Crucis in Luján is an outcome of communal participation that traces its origins to twenty-five years ago. Back in 1994, a small group from the neighborhood met at the Santa Elena parish to represent a nativity scene on Christmas Day. A couple of years later, the parish Priest encouraged the group to represent Holy Week, so a group (Emmaus) was formed with the goal of accompanying different liturgical times through artistical representation. In fact, Emmaus essentially organized people in charge of lighting, costumes, and set design and today facilitates the back-end support for the Via Crucis procession.
Via Crucis in Luján is but one of numerous such processions done on Good Friday across the Catholic world, particularly Hispanic and Latin American societies that connect the dramatic events of Christianity’s most solemn day with issues facing humanity. The birth of Central and South America was traumatic and violent. Biblical significance aside, the crucifix was an emblem of the Iberian campaign to colonize and appropriate the Americas during the Spanish conquest. “Conquest Christology” underpinned Spanish exploration, trade, and conversion of indigenous populations to Christianity. Spanish Catholicism worked very differently than the rest of Europe at the time. Eight centuries of Moorish rule and influence over Spain fueled an appetite to keep the crusade alive, and the Church’s complicity with the conquistadores legitimized the conquest as a way to fund it. So, the representation of Christ’s suffering as a victim of Roman officials dressed in customary red often takes on a special meaning in Hispanic and Latino societies that have overcome violent and dictatorial establishments.
So what about the performers?
“Well, they are simply Christians committed to this mission of spreading the message to the people,” according to an official from Emmaus. What initially started off with a few parishioners of Santa Elena gradually expanded to include people from other municipalities and cities. Emmaus as a group is open to anyone who wants to participate. Consequently, some people come and participate only once while others stay for many years. The very first performance was interpreted from “La Pasión,” a musical by Father Néstor Gallego based on the well-known Argentine Gospel of San Juan known for its moving songs. It wasn’t until 1999 that a textual script for Via Crucis based on the Biblical Gospel was written with the help of local Priests. Members of Emmaus worked hard to record voice-over audio and music to accompany the Walk. 1999 saw Luján’s first Via Crucis with an improved version of the script and music coming in 2005 that is used till date. That is the only constant in this enactment as the performers come in and out every year.
Via Crucis is a solemn and religious event in this part of the world. Christians look to live more intensely during Holy Week, a time much anticipated by the community in and around Luján. There are many from neighboring towns that come in just for the day to participate in the procession. But everybody leaves feeling moved by the Way of the Cross and the reflections they hear. Since 2005, Luján’s representation has been declared of County interest and is a part of the scheduled Easter colonial events. Evangelizing over theater is what brings this community together. Even though nobody is an actor, they share good times over these essays, ending the fatigue of their workday with a couple of hours of rehearsal and getting to know each other a bit better.
And what about Jesus?
Definitely not an easy task finding his character but it somehow works out on its own. For one, this is an extremely difficult character to represent. Historically, there have been searches for people with the right physicality for the role — long hair, skinny build, an emotive face, etc. Often, people would play the role once and then choose not to. An uncanny anecdote goes back to 2014 when the cardinal character was missing in action even two weeks ahead of Good Friday. One member of the group recalled a man who had passed by his house on occasion and met the physical attributes. Without knowing the name, occupation or whereabouts of this mystery man, the group had to rely on him somehow passing by the house yet again and hope that a random request to participate in Via Crucis would not go unanswered. By some strange coincidence, this man did walk by the house once again, allegedly on his search for God. He was pleasantly amazed at being invited to participate and said yes, thanks to his amateur acting roots elsewhere.
Actors portraying the role of Jesus share a common perspective — that of the walk being a very strong conversance. Carrying the cross makes them cry and brings upon feelings of great anguish. They somehow find the strength and intuition to both feel and absorb the pain of the people around them. An enactment of Christ’s final walk is physically exhausting but one that gives them inner peace and calm.
The entire proceeding takes some three hours, and some might say it’s like watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ in live action. The visit to Luján was a pleasant accident for me, but one that I am really glad happened. Good Friday is a mere bank holiday in many parts of the world and daily routines just continue, at least they have for me. Yet, this edition in Luján was indeed special like I was told it would be. There are very few situations where I have seen a town’s community come together like this to present a message of tolerance and love to their children and the people. Teachers, students, Moms, Grandmoms, office workers, little children, visitors, pilgrims, horses, and even photographers that have to get their shots, walk together, united by a story of suffering and compassion.
I am deeply grateful to Sabyasachi Talukdar and Bernardo Galmarini for their image contributions to this post. This article has been possible due to the inputs and insights received from Alejandra Olivero (Director of Emmaus) and Josefina Tamasi. A huge note of thanks to them for entertaining my numerous queries on Via Crucis and Luján. Lastly, heartfelt gratitude to the people and the incredible community of Luján, a gem of a town located within “powernap” distance from Buenos Aires.
Behind the scenes
Diego, age 34 essayed the role of Jesus at the 2019 Via Crucis.
He reflects, “I feel the presence of God permanently. I remember, during my portrayal of Him, having had several doubts about how to make gestures or movements. I believe I got direct guidance from the Holy Spirit when I felt incredulous before receiving that advice. Once I carry that wooden cross and start walking, crazy things happen. You feel as if the pain of the people comes to you. And then you step by your own mother, your wife, and your little children. You think of their struggles and a lot of things come to your mind, including your own miseries. I remember looking into the eyes of a man and seeing the look of my old man who is no longer with me. At that moment, I cried a lot, but at the same time, I had a tremendous sensation of feeling supported. Everything was coming from Him.”
Noelia, age 32, essays the role of Veronica, who wipes the face of Jesus in the sixth station
“I participate for many reasons, mostly because I really like to do it. I also like the energy and environment experienced within the group, despite the daily fatigue when arriving for rehearsals. It distracts me a bit from my usual routine and makes me content. But the biggest reason for me is what Via Crucis conveys to the people. Year after year, the message reaches the people and that is extremely rewarding. That’s what makes me want to continue.”