Jose Mendez will wear a crown of thorns and take up the cross on Good Friday to portray Jesus in the Stations of the Cross ceremony on the streets around Saint Nicholas Church in Egg Harbor City.
“I’m going to try to feel (his presence) more,” the 25-year-old auto mechanic at Boardwalk Honda said of his preparations for the role for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. He knows it will be an emotional one.
At Roman Catholic Churches with largely Hispanic congregations, volunteers are preparing to re-enact the Passion of Jesus through 14 stations in outdoor processions this Friday, covering the time from when he was condemned to death, through his dying on the cross and being entombed.
It is a tradition brought to the U.S. from Latin America, said Stephen Obarski, director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Camden. It grew from a more than one thousand-year-old tradition that started in Jerusalem, where the faithful followed in Jesus’ actual footsteps, Obarski said.
In more Anglo congregations, the Stations of the Cross are commemorated inside the church, without role playing, each Friday evening during the six-week observance of Lent.
“It’s a very physical thing. You walk from station to station, and at each is a painting, icon or depiction ... of all the sufferings he went through,” said Peter Feuerherd, director of communications for the Camden Diocese. “It’s a way of experiencing it, in a more direct way than if you were just to read the story.”
At the largely Hispanic St. Nicholas Church, as Mendez prepares to play Jesus, other volunteers are preparing to portray the soldiers who whipped him, the apostles who followed him, and the women who stayed with him to the end — his mother Mary and his follower Mary Magdalene.
Mendez, of Mays Landing, said he volunteered to portray Jesus because he wants to support his church and faith. No one else volunteered, he said, because of shyness or reluctance to be the center of attention.
The only problem was his hair — it’s short. So congregants got a wig for him, he said.
He has participated before in the ceremony. Last year he played the disciple Barnabas.
“It really touches your heart, participating in those types of experiences,” said Mendez, who hopes to become a police officer. “It makes you want to cry in some parts. It’s kind of emotional in a good way.”
In Vineland’s Divine Mercy Parish, Jesus will again be played by Eugenio Cardona.
Cardona, now in his 60s, has been portraying Jesus in the Stations of the Cross there for about 30 years, often dressed only in a loincloth with his chest bare. The route takes 40 minutes to walk about two miles, said Monsignor Dominic Bottino, of Divine Mercy.
“He’s a quiet guy, and he is particularly quiet about this,” Bottino said of Cardona. “He takes it as a very personal devotion to Christ. For that reason, he doesn’t talk about it much.”
Bottino said Cardona doesn’t make eye contact with people when he portrays Jesus.
“He does it in a way that people can remove him from the figure and put Christ in it,” Bottino said.
He stressed the Stations procession isn’t an ordinary historical re-enactment.
“It is a re-enactment of something that happened in history, but also it’s a going back in time to a moment we believe still has its effects now,” Bottino said. “It’s a faith-induced drama that brings (participants) back in time, and brings that moment to us in the here and now.”
Some congregations use children or teenagers for all or many of the roles, as a form of religious education.
Karely Espinoza, 17, of Egg Harbor Township, has portrayed Mary Magdalene in the Egg Harbor City ceremony for a few years but this year is passing the role on to one of her students, she said. She teaches classes to help students prepare for their Holy Communion.
“I outgrew the outfit,” she explained.
Espinoza said the procession starts off with Jesus walking and holding the life-size cross on his back, and with guards hitting him with whips. Mary Magdalene follows behind Jesus with Mary the Mother of God and the 12 apostles, she said. Behind them are angels.
When Jesus falls for the second time, Mary Magdalene wipes the blood from his face, she said.
“It gives you a feeling of being in the presence of Jesus,” Espinoza said. “You feel sorry. There’s nothing you can do (to help him).”
The procession goes from station to station — which are plaques attached to trees — on the streets around the church. At each they read what happened to Jesus, and act it out, she said. At station 12 Jesus dies on the cross; at 13 he is removed from the cross, and at the final station 14 he is entombed.
There is a service afterwards in church, but it is not a Mass, Obarski said.
“Good Friday is the one day of the year when Catholics do not celebrate Mass,” he said. “We have a Mass of the Lord’s Supper Thursday evening to commemorate the Last Supper. On Saturday evening we celebrate the Easter Vigil with the First Mass of the Resurrection. But between those two it has not been the custom for many, many centuries (to have a Mass),” he said.
In addition to Catholic churches, some Lutheran and Anglican churches also mark the day with a Stations of the Cross procession.
The Stations of the Cross event is powerful, Espinoza said. But what she finds most valuable is the experience of the entire day of Good Friday.
“The way I was taught from the time I was little, you don’t listen to music, or use electronics,” she said. “You dedicate the whole day to Jesus. It’s getting away from everything and thinking about how he died, was crucified for us.
Mendez said he has warmed up to his role by dressing as Jesus for the Palm Sunday Mass. He sat in the front of the church, he said. He didn’t have a role to play, he was there to remind people of the Christian savior, he said.
He said the congregation’s large number of children and young people enjoy the outdoor procession.
“Our community has kids from newborns to 18. I think that’s why they get more involved. It’s multi-generational,” Mendez said.
His 5-year-old daughter, Cassandra, will play an angel, he said. His mom will be on hand to make sure she understands he is portraying Jesus, and not really being harmed.
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