Not so Holy Week
The solemnity of Holy Week dictated by religious leaders has come under increasing challenge through the years. Today, in fact, we will see what happens in the town of Santa Fe on Bantayan Island, Cebu, where Catholic Church leaders have been protesting an Isla Music Festival scheduled April 12 to 15.
The parish priest, Fr. Roy Bucag, first protested the event, explaining that he was most concerned about how the music festival, clearly targeting the crowds of tourists who flock to Bantayan during the holidays, has meant young people getting drunk and rowdy.
The mayor, Jose Esgana, has argued back saying the beliefs and choices of all people must be respected and not just those of Catholics, an interesting comment because it singles out Catholics. There was a protest action last week with parishioners attending Mass and going around the town with torches and praying the rosary.
Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu has intervened as well, questioning the music festival at a time when Christians are supposed to commemorate Christ’s death for humanity.
This is not the first time we’ve seen such tensions. Although Catholicism was introduced to the country more than 400 years ago, with the majority of Filipinos claiming to be Catholic, the actual practice of the religion has not always been “faithful” to doctrines.
Holy Week is a time when we see the myriad reinterpretations of Catholic practices. Just last Sunday, for example, we saw crowds locking to buy palm fronds (palaspas) in front of churches (with some entrepreneurs actually selling the palms in streets, like they do sampaguitas). Are the palm fronds a commemoration of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, and the beginning of his coming trial and execution? Nope, the palm fronds are bought so they can be put at the entrances of homes to ward off evil and misfortune from supernatural beings as well as humans.
Come Holy Week, traditional healers go off to the mountains, especially on Good Friday, to gather medicinal plants, said to be more potent when gathered during this holy period. Less publicized are the mangkukulam (sorcerers), some of whom are also traditional healers, also going off to the mountains to gather “tools” of their trade.
Perhaps the biggest challenges these days come with the growing secularization of the Holy Week, now seen as a much-needed vacation break. We’ve seen the exodus by land, air and sea, not to hometowns but to resorts.
Traditions and change
This is not to say that the more solemn traditions have been totally discarded. Even highly urbanized communities still have their Pabasa, the chanting-reading of the Passion or narratives of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. On Maundy Thursday there will be the visits to churches, and on Good Friday people do quiet down as noon approaches, the time when Christ dies.
Oh but folk reinterpretations come in again: Between noon of Good Friday and Easter, people might become less “behaved,” arguing that this is a time when “patay ang Diyos,” God’s dead, and no one’s watching. Like our roads at night, all rules go out of the window, traffic lights changing uselessly.
Our Holy Week is a time to look at cultural persistence, as well as cultural change in the most dramatic forms. Reading about the Bantayan Island clash of cultures, I thought of the work of UP English professor (now retired) Rosario Cruz-Lucero about a Holy Week festival of sorts in San Jose de Buenavista, Antique.
On the eve of Easter, Cruz-Lucero writes, musicians “in various degrees of inebriation” make their way around town with effigies of Judas Escariot, stopping in front of the Catholic church to wait. As churchgoers come out, they are chased by the rowdy men with fake phalluses, presumably of Judas, leading to screaming and protests.
The procession moves on to the town center, where the effigies are set on fire, the ignition set on Judas’ foot. As the fire moves upwards Judas explodes because the effigies are packed with firecrackers, especially around the crotch. Judas is consumed by fire except for a wooden phallus, which drops to the ground and leads to a wild scramble as the crowd tries to grab the object.
Cruz-Lucero speculates that the ritual probably started at the turn of the 20th century, organized by members of the Philippine Independent Church (PIC) to be a thinly-disguised attempt to mock Catholics, their revelry in sharp contrast to the Catholics silent observances.
Cruz-Lucero’s articles on this festival is based on fieldwork back in 2002, and she says the practice is dying out. The one she saw that year involved only one effigy and was organized by a Catholic. Judas still loses his phallus but the firecrackers aren’t quite dramatic.
The point in Cruz-Lucero’s work is the “carnivalesque” quality of the ritual, carnivals referring not just to something festive but to the use of satire and humor to subvert social norms, including those considered sacred. On the surface, the Judas festival seems to be one of many manifestations of the feud between Catholics and the PIC (“Aglipayans” is the politically incorrect term sometimes used, and is itself an example of Catholics attacking the PIC), but Catholics participate as well, almost as if welcoming the chance to escape the strictures of a Catholic Holy Week. (Younger Inquirer readers may not be aware that in the past, the elders would make sure people avoided baths, fasted and prayed, and didn’t break out in laughter.)
Intrigued by Cruz-Lucero’s work, I did a bit of research and found a book by Cecille Klein, “Gender in Pre-Hispanic America.” The book included references to Holy Week observances in Spain involving a Judas effigy, made out of straw and rags and called Judas or Diablo (Satan), and meant to represent humanity’s sins. The effigy would be discarded after Holy Week. The practice is found as well in Mexico and Guatemala, where the Judas effigy is decapitated and then abandoned in a cemetery, presumably with all the sins of the past year.
Could the Antique Judas festival be a variation? It’s hard to say, but whether in Spain, Mexico, Guatemala or the Philippines, note the Mardi Gras-type activities, the Mardi Gras being another example of carnivalesque, a last wild fling on the streets before the start of Lent and penance.
Culture changes. The flagellations and crucifixions continue but they are becoming more of tourist attractions. The Pabasa is sometimes accompanied by an electronic organ, with a beat that resembles rap.
The exploding phallus of Judas is, well, imploding, but the burning of the effigy is still done. There are even videos uploaded on YouTube; look up “Burning of Judas,” and you’ll catch the commentator explaining in Kiniray-a: “This is what happens to traitors!” The Department of Tourism publicizes this potential attraction as “Hudas-Hudas.”
While you’re at YouTube, surprise, surprise, you’ll find videos too of the continuing Judas effigy burnings in Mexico, but no phallus as far as I know. You’ll also find a Mexican video where Judas has been banished in favor of an effigy of Donald Trump. This was done in 2016, before the US elections—a perfect example of carnivalesque and of culture change.
But wait, might there be room yet for religious reflection in the streets, in the sand and surf, this Easter?
Just yesterday the Inquirer had a feature titled “Should you blindly follow Holy Week traditions,” with Archbishop Soc Villegas reminding us that love and concern are at the heart of the observances. He gives many examples of what we can do as variations of traditions—instead of the seven churches to visit, for example, why not bring food for seven patients in the charity ward?
Take a break, but find time as well to reflect on what “holy” might mean in Holy Week.
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