Holy Week in Madagascar-Fianarantsoa

In Madagascar, the Holy Week celebrations are especially important moments in the life of the Christians. As is the case of the liturgies as a whole throughout the year, each celebration is imbued with local aspects that are very symbolic. An immense crowd participates in these festive days.

The beautiful offices of the holy days, mingling Malagasy traditions and customs, are practised for a long time, more than a month beforehand. All the dances, songs, and gestures are revealed and are learned in order to give the Eucharistic liturgy of the day all the symbolic greatness of the mystery of faith that we are celebrating. This careful preparation is the sign of a faith, of a hope and of the joy of the whole Malagasy people, expressed so well in the special Paschal time, the summit of our faith. 
According to the regions, Holy Week is marked by the customs and cultural traditions of the place. We are proposing that you discover the way in which it is experienced and celebrated at Fianarantsoa, a town in the highlands of Madagascar that is strongly anchored in the Christian faith …. and more particularly at the St Eugène de Mazenod parish in the Sahalava district! Our parish. 
This Holy Week begins on the Tuesday, as for all the Christians throughout the world, with the celebration of the chrism mass. All the priests are convoked to the cathedral where, during the mass, there is the blessing of the oils and the holy chrism that are used throughout the year for the administration of the sacraments given in each parish of the diocese. All the Christians are invited to be present.
Wednesday is a day of recollection for those who are preparing for the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, marriage; and also for those who wish to return to the Catholic faith. The animation is provided by the priests and those responsible for catechetics in the parish. 
Thursday, it is the great feast of the celebration of the Last Supper of Christ. The mass begins with a long procession of the celebrants preceded by twelve men, symbolizing the twelve disciples who let their feet be washed by Jesus, and by some women, who are responsible for the animation of the faith in the parish, bringing as offerings the cloths etc. for the altar. 
When the whole procession has taken its place in the choir, a young child from the assembly stands up and solemnly asks the priests to explain the meaning of the preparation of this eucharist, the Last Supper. During this dialogue, the women prepare the altar with the cloth, flowers and candles. The celebration can now begin. 
After the homily, twelve men from the parish, chosen from among those responsible for the animation of the Church, let their feet be washed by the priest; he is re-enacting the gesture of Jesus on the eve of his passion, a sign of His unconditional Love for the world. 
The Eucharistic Celebration ends with the Blessed Sacrament being placed on the altar of repose. All night and until the Good Friday service, groups will succeed one another to ensure a time of adoration. 
Friday, after the way of the cross, the celebration of the veneration of the cross begins. This celebration is marked by local traditions and customs linked with burial and the placing in the tomb. To understand what will take place during this celebration it is necessary to dwell a little on the rituals of the Betsiléo (an ethnic group of the Fianarantsoa area) when a dead person is being laid in the tomb. 
In fact, in the Malagasy highlands, when an ‘honourable’ person dies, a well-organised ritual is the sign of a ‘‘good departure’’ for the dead person into the beyond.
 According to custom, when the body of the dead person is being taken out of the house, all the descendants sit on a mat and four men carrying the body, pass above all of them: a sign of a blessing on the descendants by the ancestors. On leaving the house, the body being carried by the four men is taken seven times in the same direction around the house. The number seven is a sign of blessing and of a good separation. Thus, the dead person leaves those who are alive ‘in a good way’ and enters into another life. The descendants are then sure that the dead person will not come back, bringing his malediction. 
It is all these rituals that the Christians will re-enact on the evening of Holy Thursday, when Christ, our Lord, our ancestor in the faith, offers his life for the world. 
That is the way in which at the end of the celebration, after the communion, the whole church enters into this ritual of passing from life to death, from death to life. At that moment, all the doors of the church were closed, except one. 
Four men (the districts chiefs) remove Christ from his cross and place him on the altar on which there is a white ‘‘lamba landy’’. (A silk cloth in which, traditionally, the body of deceased kings and queens and of an ‘honourable’ person was wrapped.) The body of Christ is wrapped in this lamba which is fastened with cords, like a mummy (cf. above photo). Then, the four men take the body and, carrying it on their shoulders, go around the altar three times, very slowly, in the same direction. Three is the number of blessings for wishing a ‘long life’ to the deceased: ‘‘velona, andriana-tompo, Andriananahary.’’ – to be Alive – to become a Lord – to become ancestors. Traditionally, ten blessings are addressed to the dead person. 
Then a big procession starts. The four men, still carrying the corpse on their shoulders, go towards the only door of the church that is open, followed by the priests, young people and adults representing the movements. The latter take with them flowers, candles, crowns, as for a real burial. … In that way, a very long guard of honour is formed within the church. On arriving at the door, two of the men carrying the body of Christ remain standing on either side of the door, forming a type of arch under which the faithful can then pass and receive the blessing of the ancestors – of the ancestor, Christ. 
The priest then reads the Gospel of Mark, where Joseph of Arimathaea asks Pilate for permission to bury the body of Jesus, then he gives the final blessing to the whole assembly. At that moment, in a very orderly way, the whole assembly goes by the guard of honour to leave the church by the only door that is open, passing under the body of Christ so as to receive his blessing. 
Saturday, for the whole day, there is the preparation of the pascal celebration. At 6 p.m., the paschal vigil begins. All the Christians gather outside. The young scouts prepare a big fire. After the reading of the word of God and the blessing of the fire at which the paschal candle is lit, the sky begins to light up with the thousands of candles being lit by the participants… like a shower of stars in the darkness of the Madagascan night! 
After the entry procession, the singing of the exultet leads the whole church into the same light of joy and of hope… for over half an hour, words of joy are transmitted through gestures by the whole assembly, like hearts being set on fire by the Light of Life! 
Generally, during this paschal vigil, about fifty young people and adults are baptised, some among them also receive the two other sacraments of initiation: the eucharist and confirmation. For some others, it will be the moment to experience a stage marking their new desire to return to the Catholic faith. 
The procession of the baptismal water is also a moment marked by all the Malagasy culture and tradition. Accompanied by the fervent singing of the whole assembly, some ten women, the most respectable in age, from the Daughters of Mary group advance, dancing from the bottom of the church to the altar, carrying on their head the jars filled with water that will be used for the baptisms throughout the year. 
On Sunday, it is the celebration of Easter … People come together as a family or among friends for a festive meal accompanied by music and dance... All the ingredients for a successful celebration! 
Wait!... because, it is not finished! On Easter Monday, the celebration continues! In fact, it is a public holiday and traditionally, THE day of the year for going out … whatever one’s social position… Rich or poor, everybody sets out, very early in the morning, for a festive day, a day of relaxation, of laughter, of joy, of games, of singing. 
Sr Sabine Puhl
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