Today's post was written by Carlos X, noderator of the San Romero mailing list:
Arguably, there is nothing more quintessentially Salvadoran than the religious ritual known as "la Bajada" (the Descent), a religious procession that commemorates the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Divine Savior of the World (Jesus). San Salvador Archbishop Msgr. Fernando Saenz Lacalle has said that the celebration touches "the very essence of the Salvadoran national identity." In fact, the very name "El Salvador," means "The Savior," and is a reference to "The Divine Savior of the World," who is honored in the observance. "The date on which we celebrate this feast," Msgr. Saenz explains, "is related with the foundation of the city and the history of the country." In fact, San Salvador (which translates as "Holy Savior") has celebrated the feast since 1525, and has observed something like the current version of the "Bajada" since the early part of the 20th century. In recent years, Salvadoran immigration has taken forms of the peculiar ritual to D.C., L.A., and Dallas in the U.S.; Montreal and Edmonton, Canada; and even Melbourne, Australia.
The defining act of the ritual is the moment when an image of Jesus, paraded through the streets atop a float or other carriage, is lowered (the 'descent') into a stylized part of the float -- usually a globe or a giant chalice -- to emerge moments later in white, shiny garments. The theatrics dramatize the Biblical passage when Jesus takes three disciples up to Mt. Tabor and appears to them "transfigured," his face shining like the sun, and his clothes a brilliant white. The moment constitutes an allegorical transformation between Jesus the man, and Jesus the Divine Savior, who descends from that mountain prepared to embark on the final stage of His Messianic mission. In his last Pastoral Letter, El Salvador's great Archbishop Oscar Romero said that, "To be called The Republic of The Savior (El Salvador), and to celebrate each year as our patronal feast the mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord, is a true privilege for Salvadorans. To hear each year, on August 6, the voice of the Father proclaim through the Church's liturgy that our patron saint is His 'beloved son, in whom He is well pleased,' and that it is our duty to 'listen to Him,' constitutes our most precious historical and spiritual legacy, and the most efficient aspiration of our Salvadoran and Christian hopes."
In fact, Romero first registered on the Salvadoran radar as a guest homilist during the Bajada Mass in 1976, before he was named archbishop, when he delivered a very conservative sermon. After he set on a bolder path as Archbishop, Romero used the August patronal feast to release his Pastoral Letters, which commented on the social and political crisis of the country. That relevance and gravitas of the celebration was echoed in the acts of Salvadoran immigrants who have taken the "Bajada" procession to their adopted countries. The Bajada celebrated in Los Angeles includes a replica of the Divine Savior image used in San Salvador, which followed the immigrant trail taken by Salvadoran refugees who have gone to Los Angeles. The statue was blessed by Msgr. Saenz, and taken to the chapel where Romero was assassinated. It traveled by road to Guatemala, where it visited the Scalabrini Missionaries' refuge where undocumented migrants find temporary shelter on their trip north. It visited the San Cristobal de las Casas Cathedral in Chiapas, Mexico, where progressive bishops have welcomed north-bound migrants. In Mexico City, the statue was honored with a Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It also stopped at Chapultepec Castle, where the Salvadoran civil war Peace Accords were signed in 1992. Finally, it arrived at the Parish of La Placita, where Catholic priests involved in the sanctuary movement welcomed El Salvador's war refugees in the 1980s.
In San Salvador, the date is also associated with the constant specter in the Salvadoran experience: tragedy. Each year, the August holidays are taken by most as an excuse to engage in prolonged recreational activities that rival the European vacations in August. The predictable alcohol use and massing to beaches along crowded highways makes the patronal feasts a lethal and catastrophic week in the Salvadoran calendar. Hundreds die every year, shot, drowned, crashed, and plain ill-fated. As if to drown out the adversity, Salvadorans pile on to the festivities, holding even more parades, carnivals, concerts, beauty pageants, sporting events, and other revelries for the week that brackets the August 6 Feast Day. Even the Church has expanded its celebration, parading out the Our Lady of Peace icon from San Miguel province, and the Black Christ of Esquipulas from neighboring Guatemala to accompany the Divine Savior in the street processions. Attendance to the religious event has swelled in recent years. This year, the Church will add images of St. John, St. James and St. Peter (the disciples who joined Christ at Mt. Tabor) for good measure. At various times, the streets will also cede path to figures from Salvadoran folk mythology such as la Ciguanaba and el Cipitio.
In short, the bishops are right: the Bajada is El Salvador itself on parade.