The Festival of the Jesus Christ Holy Ghost Lord of Miracles, in Ponta Delgada, San Miguel Island, featured in the Azores each year in the 21rst Century, is a relic of medieval Europe. This exercise of community spectacle remains one of a relatively few unique Christian displays of public mass devotions that are at the core of Catholic teachings worldwide.
To Mark Twain, all this hoopla was just superstition. “It is in communities like this that Jesuit humbuggery flourishes. We visited a Jesuit cathedral nearly two hundred years old and found in it a piece of the veritable cross upon which our Saviour was crucified. It was polished and hard, and in as excellent a state of preservation as if the dread tragedy on Calvary had occurred yesterday instead of eighteen centuries ago. But these confiding people believe in that piece of wood unhesitatingly.” Twain, Innocents Abroad (Chapter 6).
Despite Twain’s cynical remarks, I visited these islands in the mid-Atlantic Ocean (about 4 hours flight east of Boston) in May 2017 specifically to observe the annual Miracles event in Ponta Delgada. Regardless of one’s disposition to the practitioners of religion of any kind or of civic duty, this kind of community-wide endeavor reignites the imagination, for better or worse. To me, the fete was a reminder of the spirit of good will, of hopefulness and cheer and sadness combined, and of creativity that every nation and culture strives to facilitate from time to time.
After 4 days of strenuous activity associated with the 2017 event -- religious, civic, commercial, tourism -- I left the Azores with a mixed feeling.
The intrusion of modern technology and products in modern society clearly demand more attention from seekers and performers (the cellphone’s ubiquitous role is most evident) as does the lure of the street marketplace, tugging at the loyalty of the faithful and stealing the resources of the unwary. Every kind of human motivation is presented at such mass rallies, and can be detected on the many faces of the population gathered together.
This procession of people and of the Christ figure (not a female icon as in some Ghost festivals) was solemn beyond my expectation. A melancholic slow, steady beat of drums and almost depressing but penetrating statement of brass, mixed with the melody of assorted flutes and other wind instruments, conveyed great sadness simultaneously with a sense of great respect for the longing of a humanity seeking the perfect solution.
Upon the appearance of the Lord of Miracles there arose from the crowd of long-suffering onlookers a tingling excitement and swell of polite applause. I am not a Catholic myself, but the appearance and pass-by of the iconic unsmiling Christ, vested with a rich cloak of flowers and gems, triggered emotions, some elevating and some despairing.
The effect is both anticipation and disappointment; a grand contradiction that can be accepted as the hallmark of the dimension of faith itself. After hours of standing/sitting in the hot afternoon sun, modified only slightly by an offshore breeze intruding from the North Atlantic, a wearied audience and the bewildered, slightly embarrassed Christ, appearing on a mobile platform at the church entrance, was greeted by a cacophony of bells ringing.
Within his mobile sanctuary and staring unsmiling and concerned, Jesus is accompanied by the bearers of his vehicle, a band, the members of the church hierarchies, the public dignitaries and then the masses of people composed of residents and pilgrims carrying long wax votive candles (unlit).
Residents chip in to make the Route of Flowers
Evening celebrations outside of Our Lady of Hope
(to be continued)