Thousands of Bolivians gathered this morning on Inka Rakay, a mountain sacred to the Aymara people, to greet the sun rise that marks the winter solstice and their new year. 

Pilgrims wave the Andean flag, called a wiphala, at the sunrise to greet the new year.

Because June 21 is the shortest day of the year here in the southern hemisphere, the indigenous Aymarans view it as the return of the sun because the days are now getting longer. With the new sun, “Pachamama” (or “Mother Earth”) opens and allows farmers to start planting and a new agricultural season beings.

Over the years, several FMS missioners have greatly enjoyed the cross-cultural experience of accompanying the indigenous members of their new communities to the mountain to celebrate the new year.

“I really love sunrises,” wrote Nora Pfeiffer on her blog, describing her 2009 experience. “And it was a good experience to share it with so many, who were also so thankful for the gift of the sun and all that it gives to us.” 

Nora stayed up all night with her host family, starting their trek up the mountain at 11 a.m. “The stars were incredible and once the moon set after 2 a.m. or so, we could REALLY see the Milky Way in all its glory.”

“It’s amazing what great conversations come about when hiking, as well as seeing the world through the different lens of darkness, separated from accustomed electricity.”

“To help keep up our stamina and to participate with the tradition, we chewed coca leaves, which helped a lot. In order to receive coca, one should put out both hands as a sign of respect. Also, I’ve noticed that if you have coca and someone else does, you both exchange some leaves when you greet the other person—it’s that reciprocity value coming up again.”

Richard and Kristen Nalen, along with Emily Ward, of mission class 23, try to stay warm and awake for the sunrise

Returned missioners Kristen and Richard Nalen described on their blog the events on Inka Rakay:

As the first sun rises, pilgrims extend their hands to catch the first rays of sun of the new year and a llama’s throat is slit by a shaman. Coca is chewed and leaves are thrown towards the north, where the gods live. Alcohol is consumed. Both blood and alcohol are poured on the ground, to bless the fertility of the land. The ceremony marks the encounter with human and nature in harmony. Blessings are offered by the shaman and are repeated by the crowd. Many shout for a united Bolivia.

Their stories remind us of the verses from the “Canticle of Brother Sun” in which St. Francis gives praise and thanks to God for Brother Sun and Sister Earth and the other natural elements that sustain our lives:

“We praise You, Lord, for all Your creatures,
especially for Brother Sun,
who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
of You Most High, he bears your likeness.”

“We praise You, Lord, for Sister Earth,
who sustains us
with her fruits, colored flowers, and herbs.”

As Franciscans, we share the Aymaran ideal of harmony between humans and nature, and we wish our brothers and sisters in Bolivia a happy new year. 

What cultural experiences have you had that reminded you of Franciscan spirituality?