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Good Friday (April 18th) is a day of fasting and repentance. No mass shall be held but instead at 3pm which is recognised worldwide as the time Jesus died, people go to say their prayers, kiss the cross and receive Holy Communion. Immediately after this and just as dusk is falling, the streets become filled with locals and tourists alike to watch one of the largest orchestrated events taking place in almost half the island. Roman Soldiers and Centurions in ornate costumes which are transcended from generations mix with shepherds, Jewish Priests, disciples, country folk and children all dressed in traditional costumes worn in biblical times. They all come out from the main church and walk along kilometers of streets in a long and slow procession accompanied to the sounds of sorrowful music played by the village bandsmen. The sounds of chains chills you to the bone, as hooded, faceless, barefoot penitents dressed in white and often with bloodied ankles drag their feet carrying heavy chains and crosses. Interspersed within all of this pageantry are heavy statues which are carried on shoulders of burly men and youths who have inherited this task from their fathers and jealously guarded through the generations. The clergy on such an event are all carrying their respective duties and making sure that all the statues are safely returned to the church unscratched.
Between all this and Sunday morning, the statues are removed and placed back in their respective niches, the drapes are replaced with fresh white as a sign of glory and in sheer contrast to the previous sorrow, for the Lord has risen and it is a day of celebration. The joyous bells toll, the churches welcome people for the special masses. Some parishes have the statue of the Risen Lord and once again the strong men carry the statue through the streets, only this time they are running with it. The heavy statue going up the hill in Vittoriosa is a sight to see and ensure that you are at a safe distance. This is a day for traditional “Figolli” almond paste and dough complete with a little Easter egg, which is given to the children and enjoyed by the grown- ups alike. It is also another good excuse to have sumptuous lunches, eat lamb and indulge after 40 days of lent.
Yes Malta certainly comes alive during these 15 days and apart from all of this you may also attend choral events, passion plays and listen to baroque music. Food also plays an important role, with fish being one of the most popular. We can only advise you to book in advance early for your guided Good Friday processions, restaurants and other cultural events that take place during this time to avoid disappointment and ensure prominent viewing sites.
The Holy mass on Palm Sunday is known to be a longer one. Not only are the Churches decorated with Palms and Olive branches – blessed and given to the faithful to take home with them, but it is common practice to have three priests reciting the gospel. One of them takes the role of the narrator, the second takes the role of Jesus and the last one contributes towards all the other characters. The M.U.S.E.U.M. society who have as their main agenda the teaching of Roman Catholicism, often organise a pageant reminiscent of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey with throngs of people singing to joyous salutations complete with Olive and Palm branches – same as the biblical narrations.
The next and very much sought after religious event will take place on the 11th April, when Malta commemorates Our Lady of Sorrows – “Id-Duluri”. Almost every parish or church in Malta has a statue of Mary the Holy mother of Christ with a pierced heart depicting the pain that our Lady felt when her son was tortured and killed. During the year, and especially if families undergo any sufferance due to illness, deaths or other forms, the women often take a vow to walk barefoot behind our Lady of Sorrows in a procession that narrates the holy rosary. The procession is led by the parish priest wearing ornate vestments carrying the body of Christ in the form of an Eucharistic host which is encased and protected in an embellished and adorned ”Ostensorium” (Monstrance). One of the most popular processions is the one in Valletta – ‘Ta Giesu’ church. It is also probably the most difficult since there are a lot of steps to climb which makes it harder for the statue bearers and the crowd alike.
The week that follows is the busiest, not only do the churches (mainly draped in black and solemn colours) continue with their liturgical masses and spiritual exercises intended to all the communities with different statuses, but often individuals will open up their homes or halls to display miniature passion statues, tableaux – tables laden with crockery and food which were reminiscent of the last Supper Jesus had with his apostles. In Senglea and Dingli, a group of enthusiasts painstakingly prepare plates with coloured salts which are little works of art, since they depict faces of the apostles, Jesus and other symbolic representations all made with salt and little seeds. On Maundy Thursday, some parishes organise the washing of the feet of 12 persons in a symbolic gesture, the same way the Pope does in Rome. It is also traditional to have entire families moving from one town to the other visiting seven churches. The “sepulchrum” is dressed up for this occasion in ornate white floral decorations and the Catholics offer their prayers in front of the “Ostensorium”. The church bells are silenced that night until the early Sunday morning as a sign of mourning.
Malta’s religious roots lie deep and were sown when St Paul who was on his way to Rome to be tried, swam ashore to the Island of Melita, after the ship he was on, sank just off what are now known to be St Paul’s’ Islands. The Maltese were introduced to Christianity in the year 60AD and have retained their faith since then.
Various rulers dominated the islands since that time and Malta’s colorful history is testimony to how fervent the Maltese cherish their Christianity. The traditional re-enactments of the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ during Good Friday and all the events taking place starting between Palm Sunday and Easter are tantamount how passionate the Maltese are about their beliefs. Various parishes possess an additional influx of organizational skills, dedication and the sheer amount of volunteers who painstakingly prepare months ahead for the pageantry, street processions with kilometers of people carrying statues, passion plays and tables laden with food reminiscent of the last supper. All this will take place between the 6th April and the 20th April this year and certainly not to be missed.