AT the dawn of Easter, the scavengers in Smokey Mountain celebrate the Resurrection, sounding their collective hope for life everlasting through dance and ritual. I wrote about my experience of Easter celebrations in the garbage dump in Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain: Hope for a Planet in Peril (Orbis Books, New York, 2012)
The procession is called Salubong, the encounter between the Risen Christ and his Blessed Mother. It is likewise celebrated in Catholic parishes all over the country at dawn of Easter each year.
The last Salubong I experienced started when rockets exploded high up in the air, showering multi-colored stars in the darkness before the dawn. From the north of the dumpsite, the image of the Risen Christ atop the andas, a gaily decorated platform with long handles, was carried by the men on their shoulders. They danced with the image in unison with the beating of the drums.
From the south, about a kilometer away, the image of the Sorrowful Mother, face covered by a veil of mourning, was placed in another andas festooned with flowers. It was accompanied by hundreds of women and children. The devotees, preceded by a brass band, moved solemnly in procession. The lights from their candles and their murmured prayers rose up to the skies, inducing and sustaining a state of hope and fervor, deepening the sense of the numinous as the rockets continued to explode high above.
The scavengers were filled with joy, uplifted by the spectacle of victory over death and darkness, as the two platforms met under a galilea, a structure festively decorated with flowers and balloons. Little children dressed as angels sang Hosannas to the Risen One. A pretty little angel was lowered down the galilea to take away the veil of the Sorrowful Mother. The veil was then tied to a clump of balloons with money in an envelope as a gift to the lucky person who will pick it up far, far away from the garbage dump.
A hundred more rockets exploded in the air. The choir of angels sang praises to the Conqueror of death and darkness. The brass band and the drums with their frenzied beat tried their best to drown the people’s shouts of Hosanna and Alleluia. Then the people joyfully danced with the images in fervent devotion, the platforms swaying gracefully to the beat of the drums, everybody shouting and crying with overwrought emotions, the smell of sweat and body heat mingling with the smell of incense and burning candles.
Celebrating victory over Death and Darkness
In Smokey Mountain, Easter Sunday is also the celebration of the parish fiesta. It is a celebration of the meaning the scavengers discover in the community of faith and the reassurance of their rightful place in the universe: they have a right to be here. It is also the expression of their biological need to belong to a community with shared vision and values, shared griefs and hopes that produce a sense of communion, giving continuity and dignity to their lives. Their rituals and devotions frame their identities and aspirations and make vivid and substantial the framework in which life is to be lived. Their celebrations embody the sense of the presence of the Transcendent in the world.
In the Easter celebrations, exultation becomes an expression of the self-identity of the faith-community of scavengers. They know the joy about rising again by dwelling in it in mystic surrender and sensuous abandon. This joy shows in their rapt and glowing faces as they celebrate their fiesta. They are completely absorbed by the ritual activities in their whole being. Some seem to be in a trance. One scavenger told me his skull swells up in a grace-filled sense of immediacy and expansiveness to fill the whole world when he dances with the image of the Risen Christ during the Easter celebrations.
In this grand conjunction of drums, of dancing and of ecstasy, of sunrise and of hope, was a wealth of experience I would not exchange for any other. Clad in my liturgical vestments as I joined the people’s procession, I became part of the dancing wave and experienced through their sacramental imagination glimpses of divine glory.
Through this dramatic manifestation of God’s presence, through a deep receptive sensitivity to the divine, the scavengers are transported to another dimension inaccessible to me, a dimension that connects them to something that I can barely glimpse at. Their religious activities become numinous symbols pointing to a transcendence beyond, to the presence of a Mystery that both blesses and calls, allures and terrifies.
It is during celebrations like these, as I gaze into the eyes of the scavengers in procession, that my hair stands on end. Their sense of awe and reverence, their total surrender to worship, terrifies me into silence. I am often stunned, transfixed by what I cannot put into words.
Hope for Life Everlasting
During these celebrations, the scavengers experience the divine in such an intense, intimate way that their only appropriate response is worship and adoration, reverence and devotion. They are lost in an experiential communion before God the Father, who raised the Christ from death in the power of the Spirit. They are re-immersed in their Trinitarian faith as they stand in awe and fascination. They become part of something larger than themselves and are subsequently subsumed into the greater Mystery.
The scavengers become participants in the cosmic dance that imbues everything with grace and meaning. This sense of cosmic belonging experienced in ritual moments symbolic of the past, present and future, is re-enacted, intensified and realized sacramentally as the scavengers celebrate the truth they know about salvation and hope.
Their faith enhances their primordial religious experience and heightens their sense of mystery.
Ritual and symbol are as necessary to the scavengers as food and water; they mark them as human and give them their identity as they journey in two worlds, in this world and in the world of promise and expectation.
The scavengers are profoundly, ecstatically, vitally and joyously spiritual. They even fight among each other as to who can help carry the platform where the image of the Risen Christ is placed during the Easter procession. Buoyed up by the ecstatic consciousness in their religious celebrations, I did not have to know how to define “mystery,” as in mysterium tremendum et fascinans. I just had to stand in awe.
The meaning the scavengers discover in these celebrations is a clue that the universe is more than just the interactions of gluons and leptons, of quarks and bosons. This meaning expresses something that is enduring in human beings, the hope that springs eternal at the core of our humanity.
Happy Easter to one and all!