As the time draws near, the lights in Assisi are turned off. One by one, the shops and restaurants in the old Italian city are plunged into darkness. The streets are black, with the clouds overhead blocking any potential illumination from the full Easter moon.
Along the edges of the main thoroughfare, people shuffle slowly to find a place to stand, careful not to tread on a stranger’s foot or bump them with a handbag. A whispered “scusi” or two is all that can be heard in the solemn silence that has fallen over the crowd.
From up the hill, near the Cathedral of Saint Rufino, a drum is struck once, then twice, then into a slow rhythm. The steady beat of the instrument continues and the heads of the crowd turn towards the noise.
Shadowy figures appear in the bricked alley and with measured steps they begin to walk gently down the hill.
They look like timeless apparitions, these silhouettes in the dark. It’s only in the flash of the cameras that their details are revealed – the robes of holy people, faces of those engrossed in ritual, and occasionally a hooded man burdened with a large wooden cross over one shoulder.
The long procession consists of many smaller groups, each donning a different uniform, each identifiable as members of different orders.
Here in Assisi, an ancient and sacred city, this post-dusk procession each year on Good Friday is one of the most important events on the holy calendar.
From the cathedral, hundreds of locals who have given their life to their religion walk to the Basilica of Saint Francis.
Sometimes they sing and the hymns echo off the buildings of the narrow street. Sometimes they walk in silence, ignoring the spectators on the doorsteps or pressed against the stone walls.
There is nothing gaudy or garish about the ceremony. It’s simple in every aspect. Even the lack of light in the streets demonstrates that this is a procession for the participants and not for the crowds.
For those who have come along to watch, it is a feeling of being an outsider, disconnected from the rituals and unable to understand what it must be like to take part.
When the last of the officials have walked past, the crowd do join the end of the procession. Still in silence and still in darkness, they follow each other down the hill to the Basilica of Saint Francis. In this way they show their devotion and respect but remain detached from the holiest.
Finally the lights of the city are turned back on and the shops and restaurants resume their business. The tourists blink as their eyes adjust from the darkness. It’s enlightening… in more ways than just the obvious.