"OUR GOD is a God of happy endings,? read one of the front page headlines of the Inquirer yesterday.
The quote came from Fr. Carmelo Arada of the Liturgical Commission of the Archdiocese of Manila, his way of urging Filipino Catholics to highlight, this Holy Week, the theme of Christ?s resurrection and not just pain and suffering.
It will be an uphill battle to transform this aspect of Filipino religiosity. Semana Santa or Holy Week?both terms immediately evoke all kinds of prohibitions supposedly to create an appropriately mournful solemnity as we remember Christ?s agony and death. Older Filipinos will remember strict fasting and abstinence, all businesses closing shop, and most television and radio stations going off the air. My friends from rural areas dreaded going home because their elders would forbid them from playing, laughing, speaking and even bathing on Good Friday. ?Papanis ang laway mo? was the way they described it.
The pendulum seems now to be swinging to the other extreme: Holy Week is now a time for going off to the beach; or for those who opt for a ?staycation,? for staying home glued to cable TV and the DVD player, with an occasional concession of watching films with biblical themes.
Penance or penitensiya, but that word has been redefined or should I say mangled beyond recognition. Hardly anyone fasts, and the meaning of a ?meatless? meal has been lost and it now sometimes involves lobster and lapu-lapu.
Others will do penance by joining pilgrimages to the Holy Land or other shrines, or more affordably, a local Visita Iglesia?all these often more of luxury tours than acts of penance or contemplation.
Then there is the option of going and seeing others doing their penitence, and this means flagellants who are to be found even in the heart of Manila; or going over to Pampanga for the most extreme form which now attracts foreign tourists as well, with the penitents having themselves crucified in the ultimate imitation of Christ?s crucifixion.
Punishing the body
Officially, the Catholic Church disapproves of these practices because of the harm they do to the body, which is seen as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Why then do such extreme practices persist, despite the Catholic hierarchy speaking out year after year in protest?
The Catholic Church faces a dilemma because its current proclamations against self-harm to the body run counter to centuries of traditional teachings that have in fact emphasized the body as a source of sin (kamunduan, of the earth), to be disciplined, even punished. Pain was sacralized in this context. As I described earlier, Holy Week was a time for penance in a very extreme way. The emphasis was on humans as sinners, with Christ redeeming humanity through agonizing suffering and death.
Catholic religious art emphasizes this suffering, epitomized by the crucifix with the suffering Christ. Many (but not all) Protestants have shifted the emphasis to the risen triumphant Christ and empty crucifixes.
This is what Father Arada refers to as the ?happy ending,? with Easter as the ?summit of Christianity.? But Father Arada admits Filipinos are actually ?unfamiliar? with this aspect of Christianity. Just think of how the Philippines shuts down starting today. (No Inquirer on Good Friday!) Yet my western friends, predominantly Protestant, never refer to ?Holy Week? and instead focus on Easter. ?Holy Week? is a week of working days, with Easter set for the religious activities (and secular ones, like Easter egg hunts for kids).
What I find most dismaying about our penitential rites is that they?re not quite penitential in the sense of turning a new leaf. Most ironical is that in the most extreme rites such as flagellation and crucifixion, the penitential aspect is almost minor. Instead, these rituals deal less with penance than with power.
Practitioners of traditional medicine go off to sacred places?usually mountains?on Good Friday to gather medicinal plants, believing the harvest during this time has greater potency. There is also a sinister side to this?practitioners of witchcraft gather objects for their dark trade during this time.
I mention witchcraft because many folk religious practices around Holy Week have less to do with penance and redemption than power play and negotiation. When you ask the flagellants why they do what they do, they will answer ?penitensiya,? some even talking about how sinful they are; but in the same breath, they will refer to panata or vows. The flagellation?and, for some, crucifixion?is done because of a vow, usually associated with an appeal for divine intercession to heal a seriously ill parent, or child.
Self-mortification becomes a way of bargaining with God: e.g., if you grant my appeal, I will go through this flagellation for the next nine years. There is some sense of having to cleanse oneself through a penitential practice, but this emphasis is on promising something in exchange for a favor.
This bargaining actually extends beyond Holy Week and cuts across socioeconomic classes. Pilgrimages, novenas, even pledges to donate more religious images?all these are used to appeal for a cure, a successful operation, a job overseas, passing the bar or board exam. Our religious life is one of constant bargaining, where the currency is suffering, whether through the difficulties of a pilgrimage or a crucifixion.
There?s even a gender component to this power play. Novenas? That?s for women and for wimps. The men offer more severe self-mortification because this is expected of their masculinity.
Even the penitential aspect plays on perceptions of power. If the medicinal plants and sorcery objects gathered during Holy Week are seen to be more efficacious, so too are the acts of ?piety? during holy days, and Holy Week. This encourages concepts of instant cleansing or forgiveness: for as long as you perform penitence on one super-charged day a year, you can lead a life of debauchery and corruption the rest of the year.
As Father Arada points out, the themes of suffering remain important because so many Filipinos know suffering only too well, as part of poverty. More than that though, there?s a mix of notions of magical power, of sacred places and sacred time, of instant redemption through extreme self-mortification.
The Catholic hierarchy needs to address these aspects of Catholicism, as practiced out in the real world, penance unfortunately becoming ritualized performance, rather than an inner transformation.
At UP Diliman, a stone?s throw away from the Protestant Church of the Risen Lord is the Catholic Church of the Holy Sacrifice. The Risen Christ of Easter should remind us it is not the individual one-day displays of macho strength and endurance that matter; instead it is the sacrifice for others that is truly powerful, truly triumphant.