My niece has been working on a book lately. The book features brightly colored illustrations and pithy passages on the meaning of Easter. It begins with the rousing rhetorical declaration, “Easter is………” and continues with a compelling ode to “Chocolate Eggs!” My niece, Caterina is five, and like many of her peers, she is obsessed with the giant chocolate eggs that are ubiquitous throughout Italy in the days leading up to Easter. In fact she is so obsessed, it is hard for us to think about anything else this Holy Week. In my advisory role as her book editor/ aunt, I suggested perhaps we further explore additional virtues of this sacred holiday. She casually shrugged at me and said, “the procession…”
Agerola transforms into Roman era Jerusalem for most of Holy Week. Period costume use thankfully culminates in a Good Friday procession, reenacting Christ’s final day and the crucifixion. When Caterina mentioned that there would be, “horses, music and fire pits,” I turned into the five year old. Surprised by my own mounting excitement I asked her, “Are you absolutely sure there will be horses?”
“Yes, silly, at least 50 of them,” she authoritatively informed me. In addition to chocolate eggs, Easter is also apparently……horses, music and fire pits. Now this was something I needed to see.
My experience with biblical reenactments had heretofore been limited to a lone debut role at First Christian Church’s Drive Through Nativity in Orange County, CA circa 1992. I auditioned for the role of angel– they wore pretty outfits and got to nance around the church roof for several hours, which seemed like fun. Unconvinced I was angel material, the church elders appointment me a ‘non-speaking’ shepherd role, and when I screwed up my one ‘line’ of solemnly pointing heavenward, they demoted me to Roman townsperson. I stayed in it for the food. We were promised a craft-services table replete with an unlimited array of hostess snack treats, strictly forbidden in our household. Unfortunately, hopped up on Ding-Dongs and Twinkies, I got a little nutty and began instructing the younger children to shout, “Hail freezer,” instead of the requisite “Hail Cesar.” Preternaturally sensing mutiny, Mrs. Wong, the Sunday school teacher lectured me about good Christian values and sent me home. I was not invited to audition the following year.
This year in Agerola, I would do it right. I would attend the full procession (in 21st century dress) and I would behave myself. Plus there would be the promise of horses and fire pits, if not hostess Ding-Dongs to keep me in check. As I soon learned, the full procession is 12 kilometers. Caterina failed to mention that part. It does feature a healthy number of Roman warriors on horseback, but Caterina might have also exaggerated a bit when she promised fifty. A local Agerolese plays Jesus and he must grow a rugged beard and walk barefoot for the full 12 kilometers, much of which includes bearing a cross. I was already digging the authenticity.
The procession winds around horseshoe shaped Agerola, beginning in the neighborhood of St. Lazzaro with Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. I will venture a guess that the story of Easter is already widely known and won’t bog you down with details. I will say that a particularly rousing scene of Agerola’s procession occurs in Piazza Paolo Capasso in the neighborhood of Bomerano, where local business and apartments turn into a Roman mob scene. Pontius Pilate, whose Agerolese judicial quarters are above a gelato shop/ bar, dramatically proclaims, “I wash my hands,” and then several Roman warriors on horseback come whooshing through our normally sleepy piazza. Several tourists completing the Pathway to the Gods stumbled upon the scene. They were bewildered to say the least.
It required about six hours to complete the Good Friday procession. We plaintively recited the Ave Maria and watched the day’s events unfold. As the sun set and Jesus made his way up to a rocky cliff, a minor traffic jam occurred. A SITA bus, full of Easter tourists, needed to pass. Our biblical narrator broke character and instructed us to form lines on the roadside. Fortunately the Roman warriors complete with shields and spears acted as crowd control. We processioners happily greeted our visitors as they arrived in mountain top town of Agerola.
Around 9:00 PM, we reached the cliff top Parco Colonia (overlooking the Amalfi Coast), which would double as Mount Golgotha, the scene of the crucifixion. With a full moon overhead and an ominous array of booming, anachronistic sound effects we headed into a thick grove of chestnut trees. A fire pit illuminated the scene as several hundred solemnly watched Romans mount the final crucifix. Jesus, exhausted, shouted his final words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
A final thunder boomed, the fire pit extinguished and we processioners for the first time all day, looked at one another. In this small town, we are family, friends and colleagues. Tomorrow we will eat our chocolate eggs and pastiera and lamb roasts, but for one brief moment, we looked at each other with innocent compassion, unified by the day’s procession. Next year, I am asking for a speaking role and possibly a horse and a craft-services table. But this year, I was content to be a prcoessioner because this year, for me, Easter is……Agerola.
The Good Friday procession occurs every year in Agerola. It begins at roughly 2:30PM in the Piazza of St. Lazzaro and completes a full circular route of Agerola, and finally concludes in the cliff side neighborhood of St. Lazzaro. The same day and time, there is a second procession, which is more folkloric and musical. This second procession begins and ends at the Chiesa Tutti Santi in the neighborhood of Bomerano. The two processions do not cross so one must choose accordingly.
One need not visit Agerola during Easter to enjoy the sites along the processional route. Agerola is shaped as a horseshoe and the procession route follows the main road through the town. To enjoy Agerola’s vistas of the Amalfi Coast and classical churches, begin in Piazza Paolo Capasso (which also happens to be the entrance to the famous Pathway to the Gods) and follow the main road, Via Villani, in the direction of St. Lazarro. Pick up a sandwich with local Fiori di Latte cheese, at my favorite spot in Piazza Paolo Capasso, Salumeria Manna, and make the day a picnic.