Holy Week and Easter are celebrated with great pageantry in the tiny island nation of Malta. Nearly every town and village on the two main Maltese islands takes part in the Masses, ceremonies and processions. From the solemnity of Palm Sunday to the celebration of Easter Sunday, there is so much to see: sacred exhibitions, concerts, 3-D religious displays and solemn processions with full regalia.
I witnessed firsthand the creative, festive and emotional scenes during the traditional celebrations last year. The Holy Week activities begin the Friday before Good Friday when a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, known in Maltese as Id-Duluri, is carried with great devotion throughout the capital city of Valletta. I marveled at how widespread the community participation is: Locals of all ages sing hymns and pray along the way. On this day, many people also remember Our Lady’s sorrow by fasting on bread and water, and some walk barefoot behind the statue.
After the procession, I stopped into a small bakery to snack on the traditional breads called “Apostles’ loaves.” At the beginning of Holy Week, the Maltese bakers prepare these delicious breads with sesame seeds and a few almonds to recall the meal served to the apostles at the Last Supper.
On Palm Sunday, the faithful commemorate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem by meeting in small neighborhood chapels. They receive blessed palm fronds and olive branches, which they then carry in procession to the main church.
For the Maltese, the commemoration of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday includes the popular tradition of holy exhibition tables. Tables are arranged with plates of rice, grains, olives, dates and nuts in eye-catching designs to celebrate the Last Supper. Much of this food is later distributed to poor families in the parishes.
Perhaps the most sumptuous and possibly the oldest of these Last Supper displays is that of the Dominican priory in Valletta, which is said to go back more than 200 years.
Following the Holy Thursday services are the traditional seven-parish visits. These visits are made extra special with the spectacular “Altar of Repose” arrangements. In homage to the Blessed Sacrament, baskets of white calla lilies, green garland vetch and sprouting grain, augmented with the magnificent scents of freesias and stocks, are used to decorate these temporary altars. There are also temporary steps placed in front of the altars; they are covered in red damask carpets with elaborate side curtains to match. Special flowers, such as anthuriums, roses and posies, decorate the tabernacle, and 12 large candlesticks, which represent the apostles, are placed on the steps. Large aspidistra, kentia and fern plants accent the two sides to complete the whole display. These gorgeous altars give a sense of the glory to come on Easter.
By far, the most memorable of all the activities I saw in Malta during Holy Week were the Good Friday processions. An impressive group of statues depicting scenes from the passion of Christ are carried in procession through the towns. These life-size statues made of either wood or papier-mâché are dressed in rich velvet clothes with real capes and swords. The statues are mounted on platforms that are elaborately decorated with flowers, olive branches and lights. Local participants dress in biblical costumes and bring the important characters from the Old and New Testament to life. Children carry banners and tablets with religious quotes. There are also Roman legionnaires who carry spears and shields, announcing themselves with trumpets and drums. Roman soldiers in full armor and helmets ride on horseback followed by hooded penitents who carry heavy wooden crosses; other penitents drag long chains behind them. Accompanying the procession, a local band plays traditional marches, giving the entire scene an almost cinematic feel.
On Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil takes place, as is typical, at night. After the blessing of the fire and the Easter candle is lit in darkness, the church is then fully illuminated by chandeliers that reveal the gorgeous Baroque interiors of the Maltese churches. At the singing of the Gloria, bells begin to toll happily all over the Maltese islands.
As Easter Sunday finally dawns, the resurrection of Christ is traditionally celebrated with the carrying of a large gilded statue of the risen Christ in procession outside the church. At the end of the procession, the men break into a run carrying the risen Christ triumphantly back into the church. Children follow with their chocolate Easter eggs and figolla, a traditional Maltese Easter delicacy prepared with almond paste and sweet pastry. Shaped in fish, dove or lamb shapes, the figollas communicate to the children the traditional Christian symbols
There are also joyful Easter parades around the town with the traditional festa band marches and firework celebrations to highlight the evening festivities.
At the conclusion of the 40 days of Lent, which is still strictly followed by the Maltese, the numerous solemn processions during Holy Week and the Easter Sunday morning parades illustrate the dramatic and celebratory pageantry of the Catholic Mediterranean cultures. Many of the traditions come from Spain and Sicily, but the Maltese have adapted them to create their own cultural expression.
As the world will see next month when Pope Benedict visits Malta (his trip will commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul’s shipwreck on the island that, according to tradition, occurred in the year A.D. 60, during Paul’s second voyage to Rome), Malta also offers renowned historical heritage, sunny weather and spectacular sunsets.
It was truly a privilege to follow this special time of the Church’s calendar with the locals, who commemorate so intensely the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In many respects, Malta not only celebrates these events — they visually embark on a journey of rediscovery. Through their delightful and meaningful pageantry and traditions, I experienced a unique guided tour through the holiest days of the Christian faith.
Jennifer E. Roche
writes from Malta.