Engaging the Popular Imagination; Engaging the Holy Week culture

Photo by Marge Espineda | CC BY 2.0

How does one build educationally and politically on what captures the imagination of several people in particular regions? Holy Week, in the Christian religious tradition, comprises an important series of events that take place in many communities in the Mediterranean, Latin America and beyond around this time – events commemorating Jesus Christ’s entry to Jerusalem, his last supper with the Apostles, together with his passion, death and resurrection. These commemorative events extend well beyond religious devotion and piety. These are occasions that involve several members of many local communities, most of them, in one particular context, of working class background. They are one of the many events involving communities, in these contexts, that occur throughout the year. In Spain’s Semana Santa processions, these events often reflect Arab-Latin fusions, as found in the Saeta (public lamentation, reverberating from a decorated balcony, over the processional figure of the suffering Christ or Madonna), with its Gitano/a wailing (one denotes strong Arab legacies in the intonation), typical of Al Andalus.

As with most social phenomena, many of these events have political consequences. They may perpetuate, consolidate or challenge existing relations of power in various sites. In the rest of the article, we consider some of the political implications of Holy Week events that take place in one particular Mediterranean, state, Malta, the EU’s smallest member which has historically absorbed an array of convergent and divergent influences from the Arab world, Spain, Italy, other European countries *especially during the time of rule by the Sovereign Order of St John) and its last colonizer, Britain. Possible ways of using these events in an emancipatory manner will also be discussed. They will be considered in light of sessions with people, involved in Holy Week events in the country’s impoverished traditionally ‘working class’ Cottonera region, in which we participated a few years back.

Festas, Communities and Political Education

Festas and public commemorations are important features of outdoor communities in many parts of the Mediterranean as witnessed in places such as Catalonia, Sicily, Sardinia, certain Greek islands, Malta and elsewhere.  They constitute important forms of community learning (learning, not necessarily education, since, in at least English parlance, the word education has a normative dimension which ‘learning’ does not have; one can learn to be a thief or a conman but that would not be considered education) in this part of the world; a form of community learning that takes place outdoors, in public places and spheres. This type of outdoor activity has a long history. Witness the Greco-Roman amphitheatres or megalithic remains, the latter suggestive of temple dancing and rituals.

Politics and fiestas or communal remembrances such as the Semana Santa are no strange bedfellows. Religious or otherwise, these manifestations are popular events where power relations within communities are displayed, reinforced, challenged, subverted or sublimated. They were used by conservative power groups to cement their hold on sub-ordinate groups or classes who generally form the rank and file of participants in these events. As an example of consolidation or possibly renegotiation of power relations, we can note the presence of groups and lobbies in the form of Hermandades – Brotherhoods-Confraternities – with a possible double entendre in the case of ‘del Gran Poder’ (of great power), the brotherhood connected with Seville’s famous paso procesional (processional statue or float) Jesús del Gran Poder – the majestic striding figure of Christ, in resplendent robe, bearing the cross on his back (quite a contrast to the figure of the Redeemer, in Malta and other places, depicted as having collapsed under the weight of the cross or the contorted figure of the same suffering Christ at Mexico City’s Cathedral).

These community activities however, can also be used to challenge existing power relations, as was the case with many outdoor festivals in Spain during Franco’s period of authoritarian rule when certain fiestas brought people together and fostered communal identities which the regime had sought to suppress; some feasts were actually banned. This partly explains their re-emergence with a vengeance, as in the Barcelona area, following the collapse of the regime, in the aftermath of the Caudillo’s death in 1975. Community activists interested in emancipatory politics can use these manifestations for the purposes of community education, as with the Universitat Nova project in Barcelona.  This is a type of education that is critical but not paternalistic, involves the community, and is channelled towards emancipatory purposes. In what follows we present some suggestions in this regard concerning Holy Week events.

Holy Week

Holy Week displays, processions and public events are important features of the year’s cultural and/or religious calendar in Malta a republic consisting of an archipelago of Islands, of which two are substantially inhabited, Malta and Gozo. One of the traditional hubs for these events however is the Cottonera region, the heart of the former docklands and a labour, once socialist, stronghold. This is a predominantly working class area, with a long history of political militancy associated with the Malta Labour Party, formerly espousing a socialist politics especially under Dom Mintoff and more lately embracing a neoliberal politics, as with most European socialist parties which have swung to centre or possibly right of centre. This prevalence of working class people notwithstanding, it has not been uncommon for conservative forces to use Holy Week commemorations to perpetuate their cultural, political or economic hold, or to attempt to pre-empt progressive change. During the period of British colonial rule over Malta and the early years of independence, the English Governor General would visit Last Supper displays in one of the localities – a case of populism. The most glaring example of conservative expedience probably occurred during the politico-religious struggle of the 60s which saw the reactionary Catholic hierarchy and its allies on one side, and the Labour Party on the other. The confrontation was over the project of ‘modernity’, centring on six electoral points, which the Church refuted, thundering an interdiction targeting members of the party executive and those who contested the Elections on Labour’s behalf. There was spiritual blackmail against those who voted Labour, in the form of their being regarded as having committed a mortal sin.   The crucial 1962 elections were held during Lent. The Labour Party lamented that the Church used activities associated with this period, especially Lenten talks, to carry out anti-Mintoff propaganda. Yet, interestingly, especially in the South of Malta, where one finds the highest concentration of Holy Week processions (including the three cities forming the Cottonera region, all within walking distance of each other), known members or supporters of the Malta Labour Party  always took part in popular events associated with the commemoration, even at the height of the politico-religious crises. There was a case of one MLP electoral candidate offering to donate a processional statue to a church holding a Good Friday procession elsewhere on the island, an offer that was categorically refused by the parish authorities. Well known MLP figures somehow still felt a sense of ownership in this regard. Participation in these commemorative events (mainly Good Friday processions and that of the Risen Christ on Easter Sunday), as with the various annual feasts of the cities’ venerated saints and the Madonna (celebrated, with a different title and on different liturgical dates, in two of the cities), connected them to the communities from which they hailed.

Despite the drop in church attendance and the gradual secularisation of Maltese society and state, Holy Week events have grown in the past few years with respect to participation and activities in various localities. They are one of the few events where local communities, including their many working class members, come together. Many of today’s Holy Week activities however, either hark back to a pre-Conciliar Catholicism  or have been turned into Hollywood-inspired dazzling pageantry extravaganzas which, prima facie, do not serve emancipatory purposes. This notwithstanding, Holy Week can be used to foster progressive politics and emancipatory education. This is was the target of a particular activity carried out in 2016.  Labelled the ‘Holy Week’ project, the activity was organised by and held at the University of Malta’s outreach centre, the University of Malta Cottonera Resource Centre, set up to redress this specific region’s poor representation in the University’s student body pursuing mainstream programmes.  It was once argued, based on empirical research, that someone from the affluent threesome cluster of neighbouring villages – Attard, Balzan and Lija – has a twenty times greater chance of making it to University than someone hailing from the Cottonera’s Three Cities (Birgu, Bormla and Isla).

The intention, in this Holy Week project, was for both session leader and rest of the participants to move ‘from the known to the unknown’ to adopt a well known pedagogical maxim.  It was meant to generate a learning experience for all involved in the spirit of informed dialogue, irrespective of one’s religious or non religious persuasion. The context was set with an initial session providing a rigorous overview of the historical developments of outward Holy Week events on the island, with passing references to other countries, notably Spain.  The invited resource person provoked participants to engage in dialogue drawing on their own perceptions, some based on evidence and others based on hearsay, and considering these critically. We now consider a number of issues concerning Holy Week, tackled in the programme, which, we feel, one can address in an emancipatory and progressive manner. People committed to emancipatory politics can engage critically and fruitfully with these and similar features or events.

Progressive Lenten Themes

Imperialism. The specific historical context in Jesus Christ’s time was characterised by Imperialism – Roman Imperialism. Christ and many others in his day suffered death at the hands of an Imperial regime and its collaborators. In many Good Friday displays however, the splendour and the glory of the Roman Empire, rather than the brutality and suffering perpetrated in many regions, including Palestine, are emphasised. One can increasingly refer to the latter in activities and commemorations. Starting from here, one can then seek occasions to engage with such phenomena as the contemporary version of Imperialism, as well as colonialism and neo-colonialism in later and present times, including the current intensification of globalisation with its colonising foundation and the plight of immigrants perceived as victims of a colonial legacy. Witness the Palm Sunday processions organised by Maltese and immigrants (from Syria and Sub-Saharan Africa) in a particular locality, and the Lenten Talks addressed by migrants at the University of Malta’s Sixth Form College. Here links between the ordeal of victims of colonialism in Christ’s days – including Jesus himself – and the plight of modern victims were forged, in the latter case by the victims themselves. Themes concerning different forms of colonialism, such as, for example, ‘settler colonialism’ (in Palestine itself) or a country’s ‘internal colonialism’ can be broached. For instance, the following question arises: is the local community itself being taken over by phenomena such as over-development, the loss of public spaces or the tranquillity that once characterised definite parts of localities, a case of loss of effective sovereignty by inhabitants of the community?  In short, we can tackle private encroachment on and commodification of public communal life and spaces.

Political Theatre: Many Holy Week activities nowadays involve theatre. The various pageants carried out on stage or inside the Church, or on its parvis, hearkening back to the Medieval Miracle plays in England and their equivalent elsewhere, are said to mark an important historical landmark in the development of European theatre. These activities occur not only in Malta but in other parts of the world, testifying to a tradition in Europe that goes back hundreds of years and which influenced regions and countries outside the continent. Hamlet’s advice, to the travelling players, not to out-herod Herod, is a direct reference to these forms of theatre where Herod was, in the English Middle Ages and later, stereotypically a swaggering ranting bully, a type of casting that must have led a few actors concerned to go ‘over the top’. There is mileage in these dramatic activities to enable one to dwell on the evolution of European theatre. Most of the participants and the audience in the Maltese plays or what are called ‘pageants’ are, once more, working class people. With some important exceptions, these involve spectacular displays of a chain of events certainly not as they really occurred but as they are imagined, in a hyper-real way, to have occurred. We have our full gruesome spectacle of flashing whips and more machista delightful displays of Romans in shining armour.  Based on these spectacles, one would be forgiven to think that it took more than a legion to accompany the defenceless and ailing Nazarene and the equally defenceless ‘thieves’ to their execution.  The probable reason for this excessive presence of men in Roman military garb is the huge demand for this role coming from the community’s male sector, a situation found also in Spain where people pay to participate in the processions.

These events, however, can be used for emancipatory purposes, as is frequently the case with passion plays in some areas in Latin America. One can explore the link between machismo, virility and the culture of militarisation, still prevalent today. One can also raise the question of poverty which leads people, such as the two ‘thieves’ in the Passion narrative, to be imprisoned and executed for simply stealing food, a recurring theme in European literature down to the eighteenth century where authors such as Daniel Defoe (see Defoe’s Moll Flanders) suggest that one can be hanged for simply ‘stealing a handkerchief’, to repeat the old cliché.  This anticipated the recurring 19th and turn-of-century Dickensian and Hardy-ian themes of ‘justice’ being done (see Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles) – drastic sentences meted out only to the poor and powerless, as law is there primarily to safeguard the interests and possessions (‘private property’ as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would underline) of the powerful members of the ruling class.

Several similar themes are present in the Good Friday narrative; public executions associated with people who could not afford to buy Roman citizenship, innocent people sacrificed at the altar of political expedience; the manner in which those who wield political/cultural power react when people threaten their hold or speak truth to their power.  Similar recurrent themes can be tackled in a way that the links between what transpired then, and what has continued to occur since, are emphasised. One can explore several possibilities, in this regard, through theatre, and engage dialogically with the audience, in the manner of Boal’s street theatre or Federico Garcia Lorca’s La Barraca (the shack) community theatre, the latter featuring among the ‘education missions’ of Spain’s Second Republic.

Women: Though the main character of the Passion is Jesus, the Passion Narrative involves a lot of women as protagonists, even when males failed miserably (for instance at the foot of the cross). The Gospels narrate that a woman constituted the first witness on Easter Sunday. This account challenges then contemporary Jewish practice which did not recognise testimonies offered by women. There is mileage here for discussions concerning the historical status of women and citizenship throughout the years (barred from voting, from attending universities etc.). In local Holy Week events, the feast which seems to involve most solemnity is that of Our Lady of Sorrows – the Mater Dolorosa (a key image evoked by Southern European playwrights and film-makers, including Luigi Pirandello and Giacomo Gentilomo), organised one week before Good Friday. Our Lady of Sorrows constitutes a key figure in Holy Week processions in many parts of the Mediterranean and beyond. One of the best known processional statues is ‘La Macarena’, a much revered paso (many Sevillanas are named Macarena, hence the popular Spanish hit of the 90s) in Seville. This typical Spanish doll-like image of a Madonna, with a couple of tear drops, dressed regally and sheltered by a canopy, takes its name from the surrounding Macarena district of the city. In this solemn feast in Malta, many manage to connect the suffering of Jesus’ mother to that of actual people in distress because of things that have occurred to them or to their loved ones. The Valletta (Malta’s capital city) procession attracts a large crowd even, once said to have included suffering women who worked as prostitutes. The leading Neapolitan playwright Eduardo de Filippo wrote a play, Filumena Marturano, that  gains some resonance here, with the Madonna’s image (not the Mater Dolorosa but simply a statue of the Madonna in a niche, typical of Naples and other Southern European cities), featuring prominently.  The Virgin Mary constitutes the classic representative of the woman embracing that strong sense of responsibility in a patriarchal society: “E figlie so’ ffiglie” (Neapolitan – formal Italian: I figli sono figli) meaning: offspring are offspring. These are the words Filumena imagines the statue of the Virgin Mary to have pronounced (Act 1). The Mater Dolorosa feast and other Holy Week events, therefore, tell of women’s suffering, strength and hopes. This can be used to generate thoughts about the sufferings, challenges and hopes of women today, especially in local communities: the injustices that women are suffering in communities because they are women, and the signs of hope (the Sevillian Macarena is the Madonna of Hope). In the case of the Cottonera and other Maltese regions, one can discuss the role of Cottonera women in not too distant colonial history, with their washing of UK sailor’s clothes for a pittance, engaging, out of necessity, in prostitution to serve the Garrison’s needs.  There was the occasional instance of the cause being young widowhood resulting from fatal tragedies befalling husbands during work on HM’s ships at sea or in the docks. The several votive (Ex Voto) paintings (a form of popular art, imploring or thanking divine providence for the safe return, or cure, of a relative), in one of the Cottonera’s parishes, attest to concerns about the well being of seafaring family members in this historically maritime region.

Art: Communal celebrations or commemorations such as Holy Week, with its plethora of different forms of artistic expression and craftwork, as well as culinary delights, constitute what Antonio Gramsci calls manifestations of the ‘popular creative spirit’. The way in which this spirit is manifested in Holy Week events and activities has changed throughout the years. Some of the recent forms involve such features as euro-centrism and machismo. Good Friday events can be activities where the art is valued critically; where the community itself would consider the limits and possibilities of this art not merely in aesthetic terms, but with respect to the experiences and struggles that occur in localities, communities and nation at large. Those who are involved in Passion and Resurrection manifestations may engage critically with the issue of what is expected of Holy Week art, whether they are happy with trends that are currently popular, and whether they would want artistic endeavours of this kind to reflect their current tribulations. Why (or if) are they happy with a blondish, blue-eyed  and larger than life Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter being the prototype), even if the passion mysteries are supposed to celebrate a Middle-Eastern dissident who entered the lowest gutters of humanity?



The range of topics is broad enough to provide much grist for a community education – socio-political community education deriving from events that capture the imagination in this part of the world, partly because of their engaging the ‘popular creative spirit’.

This article constitutes the basis for an academic work in progress. It has been couched in an idiom in keeping with the style of this particular outlet. The two authors teach at the University of Malta and have been born and raised in Malta.