How I have celebrated Holy Week through the years was often dictated by where I spent it. In my adulthood, it has been mostly in Manila. As a youth and a young mother, however, I spent Holy Week in Laoag, where I grew up and spent my summer vacations with my family unlike any I’ve experienced. Life in Laoag was simple. In those days, there was no TV yet. All we had was the radio and a record player plus some 45s and long-playing albums but which, except for the first, we were not allowed to use. I remember what my father used to do on Good Friday. After an early lunch, he’d get into his favorite rocking chair, have an anahaw fan handy, and switch on the radio to spend the next three hours reflecting on Christ’s passion and death as interpreted. Some of us would lay a mat and some pillows on the cement floor and let the priest’s words battle with our sleepiness.
Like most Filipinos of my era. I experienced Holy Week with the usual do’s and don’ts. Do pray the Stations of the Cross. Do make sure to offer sacrifices to the Crucified Christ. There were more don’ts, and they ranged from the inane to the gross: Don’t take a bath on Good Friday. Don’t listen to the radio. Don’t talk from 12 noon to 3 p.m. Don’t read a novel, read your prayer book. Don’t laugh boisterously. Don’t go swimming. Don’t drink soft drinks. Don’t play the piano. And a whole lot more.
I didn’t mind the no-nos, though. There were enough theatrical “shows” to move even the most jaded to tears and feel sorry for his/her sins. Good Friday had the most drama, with its “Siete Palabras” and the “tanged” (literally “nod,” or “nodding”). I will never forget the backdrop at the main altar area. A tall structure simulating Mount Calvary was erected with a Crucified Christ at the apex. Somewhere lower to His left and right were statues of the Blessed Mother (Mater Dolorosa), St. John the Beloved, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleofas.
Branches and leaves of nearby trees tacked on “Mount Calvary” completed the production design.
With such a background, the homilists led the meditation on Christ’s seven last words, and some people sat through the heat or slept through one or two of the last words. At the start of the seventh word, everyone perked up and looked forward to its climactic ending. Soon, the priest’s voice assumed a more tremulous quality as he switched from the objective reflective tone to the second person, saying: “What have you done to the Lord? Look at this man and see what your sins have done to him.” If the speaker were dramatic enough, many listeners would begin weeping quietly.
At this point the tanged begins. Suddenly, the head of Jesus moves up and down seven times while the priest strives to arouse a feeling of remorse and repentance. The climax assumes further drama when thunder and lightning fill the church. Church boys create the lightning effect when they position themselves outside the church door in the noonday heat and use a large GI sheet to entrap the reflection of the sun and shift it straight into Christ’s face. For the thunder, large drums are banged so strongly you feel your heart might go into palpitations. Some women wail or faint at this point, amid the thunder and lightning.
When the ritual ends, a few people rush to the makeshift mountain and get a branch and some leaves for their altar. Most of the worshippers leave for home, if only to drink a little water and take a piece of bread and then rush back to church for the procession of the Santo Entierro. This procession is the “mother of all processions” and to many, this is even more important than Easter or Sunday Masses. I myself have attended this procession so many times in the past, but nowadays my arthritic bones cry to the heavens and plead, “No more!”
As a teenager, I would stare at the Crucified Christ to see if I could count seven tanged, one each for the seven last words. I also tried to see if there was a telltale rope that moved Christ’s head, but over the years the nodding had become imperceptible, perhaps for a reason. Do I need the nodding Christ in my relationship with him? Do the special effects help me to reconcile with Christ?
These questions are hard to answer because the last time I spent Holy Week in Laoag was years ago. What I know is that even if these rituals started as external trappings that helped me imagine Christ’s passion and death, they have evolved, with God’s grace, into a more mature understanding of the Paschal Mystery and have helped me in my dealings with my God and others.
I await Easter Sunday with hopeful expectation for I know only too well that the Good Fridays of our lives all get brightened with Easter Sundays, made more radiant with the Resurrected Christ.
Ching J. Chee Kee, 68, says she is a retired teacher who enjoys family meals when her stories and distinct laughter fill the air to announce that “God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.”