The celebration yesterday of the Birthday of John the Baptist took me back in memory 21 years. On June 24, 1991, in the quebrada (hidden valley) of Huavinha I celebrated my first village fiesta in the highlands of Northern Chile.
It was a memorable event for me in many ways. The journey itself was unforgettable. I was travelling in a pick-up truck with a 3-person parish team, and we were blessed to have an experienced driver.
We were travelling from our base at sea-level to a height of 9,000 feet along tortuous, cliff-hanging unpaved roads that simply had been scraped out of the side of the barren desert mountains. The ascent was gradual, but sometimes it involved sudden descents as the road had to negotiate a particularly difficult piece of terrain.
After a 4 hours nail-biting journey in low gears, we turned a corner and suddenly there was Huavinha. It looked beautiful and inviting, guarded by the stern barren mountains that surrounded it.
Huavinha exists because there is an underground river near enough to the surface at that point to water the land and make it fruitful. It is a wonderful testimony to the saying that the desert is fertile.
The valley is just over a mile long, and about half a mile across, with about 30 families living in little mud homes with thatched roofs. The families cultivate their chacras (plots of land) growing corn, potatoes, onions and varied vegetables which find a ready market in the city four hours away down by the sea. They also have their livestock of llamas, sheep, hens, chickens and rabbits.
Our group arrived just in time for the visperas (vespers), the ritual preparations for the main celebration on the following day, the 24th. The visperas consist of the blessing of the flowers, the candles and Saint John’s new clothes. The sponsors who finance all of this will dress the saint’s image with the new clothes in preparation for the Mass and procession on the Feastday itself.
During these hours more and more people are arriving, as former residents and relatives of current residents join the villagers to honor their patron saint. The fiesta consists of the visperas, the feastday itself, and the morning of the third day. During this time the population of the village will increase to five times its normal size.
After the celebration of the visperas the newly-dressed saint is enthroned in the big old 16th century stone church awaiting his big day tomorrow. Then the feasting begins with hundreds seated at improvised tables for a huge open-air banquet of arroz con carne (rice and meat) with potatoes and a variety of vegetables, delicious postre (desserts) and fine Chilean wines in abundance. The meal is followed by group folk dances which continue far into the night, with the silent mountains sending the music echoing through the dark valley.
Our group retired early while the dancing was just warming up. But sleep did not come easy to me, not just because of the non-stop music, but because our driver, who was my room-mate, revealed a hidden talent. He fell asleep immediately, and overrode the music with a monumental snore that resembled two powerful Harley Davidsons in a revving competition. I just had to get away, and ended up sleeping fitfully in a sleeping bag on the hard kitchen table.
I had no problem rising early on the feastday, and checked out the church in preparation for the Mass and the procession. As the sun climbed in the sky, the valley came to life, and after a sleepy breakfast the crowds began to assemble for the midday Mass.
The packed congregation played their part devoutly at the Mass, and then paraded in the procession through the valley honoring Saint John in prayer and song. The two brass bands were a great support, especially when people’s voices grew tired and needed a rest.
When Saint John was returned to his place of honor in the church in the late afternoon, the crowd dispersed to prepare for the main banquet. The main banquet again took place in the open air, and I calculate that about 500 people took part. I took the opportunity to retire soon after the end of the banquet, while the music and festive dancing continued long into the night.
The fiesta ended on the morning of the third day with a communal visit to the village cemetery. I was led from grave to grave to bless and honor those who had gone before us, and were now enjoying their eternal rest. It was a fitting conclusion to a community celebration which integrated the past and the present with a future we all know is in store for each one of us.
John the Baptist was sent not just to point out the Messiah, but to bring people together in the awareness of their common origin and shared destiny. It is so much easier to face the past, the present or the future when you know that you are not alone. There may be differences in language or race, but you know that you are not alone when you are with people who share your faith, your values and your eternal destiny.