The Fijian translation of Good Friday has always struck me; it is literally ‘Day of Death’. No massaging, no theological euphemisms, just saying is ‘as it is’. Preparations for this day are taken very seriously in Fiji, and the Way of the Cross or the dramas through which people mark the day are often long, physically challenging and emotional.
That was the case last year in the five highland villages of Ba. On Wednesday morning, forty young people started carrying the cross in silence along a 20-mile stretch of tough and parched roads linking their villages. They were accompanied by parish catechists from each village who gave teachings each night on the meaning of Holy Week. Some young people from other Christian denominations also took part.
Having ‘farewelled’ the parishioners of Ba Town at 6am as they boarded a bus to begin their own Way of the Cross walk, and knowing that the other section of the parish – the four coastal villages – had also been on the road since 5am, I headed up the hills to Navala, to conduct five baptisms and to admit 12 young people into our Sacrament of Confirmation Programme.
By 9am, we were ready to witness the ‘Highland Youths’ rendering of the Passion of St. John, which interwove the 14 traditional Stations of the Cross. The life-like shouts of the soldiers and the physical mistreatment of Jesus abruptly brought us back to that day in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago.
Dressed in uniforms culled from cardboard boxes, with a few wearing Fijian Army fatigues, they pushed Jesus up the hill of the village, where he met his mother and the weeping women, fell down and stood up again three times, was helped briefly by Simon of Cyrene, and was finally divested of his clothes right down to his undergarment, at which point he was hoisted over the village on a cross.
At one point, I had to make sure that the nail hammering was not an actual crucifixion. Nevertheless, the young man portraying Jesus had to squeeze his legs between two narrow slats, which was very painful for him, but he did it. After ‘death’, he was taken down from the Cross into the arms of his mother from where the soldiers took the body and carried it into the sacristy for ‘burial’.
Rather than all adjourn to wait for the liturgical Service of the Passion at three o’clock, I asked that we keep going. In place of individual confessions, a service of communal repentance was led by the catechists. Villagers had written down their sins, and watched as they went up in flames before the altar.
The Liturgy of the Word followed, and I decided to let the young people, who had learned their parts off my heart in their drama, also conduct the proclamation of the Gospel – through the same Jesus, Peter, Pilate, crowd etc.
This was a powerful ‘retake’ of what we had already seen. My homily noted that while the Stations of the Cross (and the other three Gospel writers) emphasise Jesus’ physical suffering on Good Friday, the Gospel of John poses a number of awkward questions to us: Who is Jesus for you?; Do you (like Peter and the others) also deny knowing him when the chips are down?; Who is really on trial here – Jesus, Pilate or you?; What king (meaning power structure) do you choose in your life?; Is it that which is based on violence, patronage and the size of one’s army, or is it one whose only weapons are integrity and truth?
Two young men then held up two crosses for the rite of veneration, and we ended with Communion which was returned to the house in the village where it had ‘slept’ the previous night. After the Liturgy, we retired to drink kava which lasted until exactly 3pm, at which time the village fell silent to mark the hour of Jesus’ death. Afterwards we had lunch.
Last year’s ‘Day of the Dead’ or ‘Good Day’ remained in my memory for many days. I continue to marvel at the ingenuity of the Fijian people, particularly the young people, in taking this story to themselves and presenting it in a way that shakes one’s liturgical niceties, returning it to the physical, messy and ultimately loving day that it was.