I once worked at a summer camp in the city of Elche along Spain’s eastern coast. One day, a boy of about 13 appeared at the end of the palm-lined lined playground and a crowd of youngsters quickly gathered round him. “He’s an angel,” they said respectfully, pointing to the young man’s golden slippers. It was early August, and in a few days the city would be thronged with visitors attending the “Mysteries of Elche,” an annual event celebrated since the 14th century. I learned later that many candidates who wished to play the role of angel failed their auditions. “Only a few boys are brave enough,” I was told.
In America, Catholicism never seems to fully mesh with our culture. Spain in the 1960s was a very different place. Throughout the summer almost every locality held some form of celebration, almost always with religious overtones. One evening the sky filled with fireworks to honor the patron saint of the town’s bar tenders. A fishing village held an annual Mass for those who had died at sea. A nearby town commemorated the victory of the Christians over the Moors at the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. Few events, however, were so well known as the mysteries at Elche.
One day preceding the event, a priest walked with me to the Church of Santa Maria at the center of the city. Entering the church through a side door, we found a shrine to the Madonna, black-faced, and dressed in a jewel-covered white damask dress. Candles burned brightly before the statue, and a few townspeople knelt silently in prayer. A stage had been built across the sanctuary, and the domed cupola had been covered over with a canvas depicting the sky. I was reminded that in Spain, physical and spiritual reality is never far apart from one another.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised at this. Karl Rahner, the great Jesuit thinker, once wrote that from a theological perspective “the salvation of the flesh has already begun.” He points out that historically Protestant countries in Europe, by and large, have a different attitude about material reality. They tend to see salvation as something that is coming. Catholics, by contrast, view redemption as much more here and now. We take for granted encountering Christ in the Eucharist, or experiencing God’s spirit in water, ashes, and oils. We have particularly a strong devotion to the person of Mary, fully redeemed in body and in spirit.
August 15 arrived, the Mediterranean sun beat down on the palm groves of the city, and visitors thronged the Church of Santa Maria. With a ticket in hand, I found a place on a balcony overlooking the high altar, pressed in by men and women waving hand-fans. To the accompaniment of an orchestra, the mystery play was sung from beginning to end in an ancient the dialect. Its major players were personages commonly seen in statuary or in city names such as San Juan, San Pedro, and San Mateo. The central figure was Mary, a part sung by a boy soprano. As the tale unfolded, San Santiago (St. James) failed to arrive in time for the Mary’s burial, and insisted that the coffin be opened so that he could view Mary’s body one last time. Despite the intense heat, the audience closely followed the drama.
It is suggested by some that the Catholic attitude toward the Virgin is fundamentally a pagan concept, a carry over from mother-earth goddess devotion of some primordial time. Yet Catholicism embraces the feminine role in salvation. As Vatican Council II points out: “In the mystery of the church, which is itself called virgin and mother, the Blessed Virgin stands out in eminent and singular fashion as exemplar of virgin and mother.” Whereas other traditions share concern that overt devotion to Mary and the saints detracts from Christ’s saving work, our faith community considers these integral parts of salvation history.
When the coffin at center stage was opened, the Virgin was gone, and in her place was a profusion of flowers. For a moment the Church and audience was in rapt silence. Then the orchestra swelled and from the tomb appeared the Madonna, not an actor, but the black-faced statue dressed in the white gown that I had seen a few days earlier, that ascended slowly into the air, pulled upward by a thin cable from high above. The air around her suddenly sparkled with glints of gold, and looking up, I saw descending from the high cupola, two angels with golden slippers, sprinkling handfuls of golden glitter in the air. They flanked the parish priest who played the role of the heavenly father, all suspended by cables. In the air, forty feet above the altar, God and angels met the statue of the Virgin. Amidst the congregation’s tumultuous cheers, the heavenly gathering passed upward, together and disappeared from sight as golden glitter descended from above.
Every now and then I think back upon that day and am reminded of a simple truth: Elements of our faith, such the role of Mary in salvation, may challenge our belief. But these truths are not ours to set aside. Ultimately the bravest act that day may not have been to hang from the high wire wearing golden slippers, but rather to acknowledge that in time and in space, Christ’s redemptive love is a far richer, more penetrating reality than we can ever realize.