Easter rites in Palermo: what to expect

Easter is the highest point of the Christian liturgical year and the most meaningful of all. The days before Easter Sunday, each one with a significance of their own, all together build up a climax culminating in the celebration of the resurrection of the Christ. Starting with the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, through the death of Jesus on Good Friday, and the wait for the resurrection commemoration of Easter, the solemnity of the feast is certainly felt in Palermo as well.

The commotion of the moment, the drama and the religious depth get amplified by the splendour of the churches throughout the city, with floral adornment and lighting especially made to stress the importance of this feast and bringing with them that sense of theatricality so commonly known in those place in the Mediterranean that have known Spanish rule and shared its culture.

On the evening of Maundy Thursday groups of  faithful (and curious, and tourists) wander from church to church to pray in front of the “sepolcri”, the adorned altars decorated with flowers and little plants of lentils or bean (a symbol of the life of the seed that flourishes again in the new plant). Those little plants are usually grown for 40 days (the duration of Lent) in total obscurity, a reference to purity. The lights are all switched off or dimmed, and candlelight is concentrated on the main altar, to direct the attention of the faithful on the true center of Christian life. In some churches, there is some sort of musical arrangement in order to create a quiet atmosphere for personal thought and prayer. The result is an experience that is truly ascetic and unique.

The “altar of repose” in the church of S. Caterina (ph. pietrogiammona, Flickr)

Good Friday is the day of the via crucis (the Stations of the Cross), of blood and death. Throughout the city it is possible to witness to processions (you can find a full list here: https://turismo.comune.palermo.it/), where the sense of gravity and the idea of suffering is visually and physically represented by the faithful of the religious guilds carrying statues depicting Christ just after he was taken down from the cross and his Sorrowful Mother. This displays brings the watchers back in time and helps him/her to live again the scene in order to deeply think about it.

The evening of the Saturday the resurrection of the Christ is remembered. The suggestive atmosphere of the biggest churches completely immersed in darkness until the light of the new paschal candle spreads through the naves and fills the whole building is truly amazing and highly symbolical. But what amazes the mosts is the tradition of the so-called “calata ra tila” (the dropping of the veil), when the big curtain hiding the main altar is dropped all of a sudden on the first notes of the Gloria, and the presbyterium is filled with light and the church with the enthusiasm of the faithful.

With Easter Sunday the sacred representations stop and so does the period of Lent. On this day friends and relatives gather together around the lunch table, crowning the usually huge meal with the most renown pieces of traditional Sicilian patisserie, that is “cannoli” and “cassata”, along with the marzipan lamb and the more commercial “colomba” (literally meaning “dove”, because of its shape).

The liturgical year starts again, and the table of the citizen of Palermo knows again an opulence that was never forgotten, not even during the period of the ecclesiastical fasting.