Holy Week always reminds me of the way Filipino religiosity is a work in progress, retaining many older traditions but often with modifications, if not innovations. Even more fascinating are the theological underpinnings, such as notions of who Jesus is, the meaning of his death and notions of redemption and salvation.
What I find most intriguing is the way Holy Week traditions are kept in cities. Especially this year with four and a half days of officially declared holidays, many urban residents will flee the cities for what they think is a break. The result is paradoxical, most cities (poor Baguio being an exception) taking on an almost eerie silence and calm, a solemnity that is more congruent with the spirit of the season than popular Holy Week destinations in the countryside, where the ambience is more of a belated Mardi Gras.
I’m beginning to believe it’s in the cities where you find Lenten religiosity, Filipino style, still alive and well. There will be neighborhood Pasyon singing, although many of these neighborhood chants are now being modified, accompanied by electric organs and taking on new beats, from the waltz (Strauss no less) to the polka.
Holy Thursday’s Visita Iglesia is really more of an urban phenomenon since churches in rural areas are usually limited to the poblacion or town center. On Good Friday, it is also in urban areas where you have the largest gatherings. Parts of Metro Manila, notably in Tondo and Malabon, still have flagellants and reenactments of Christ’s passion and death, but no crucifixions as far as I know.
Then there’s Quiapo, which draws thousands of Nazarene devotees from all over, including places outside Metro Manila, barefoot and in maroon. The Nazarene devotions come closest to the original Christian tradition of remembering Christ’s passion and death, with many of the devotees buying T-shirts that proclaim their gratitude for Christ’s death, described as pagtutubos, the same term used when someone redeems a pawned item.
At 12 noon, people raise their arms waving handkerchiefs, a way of paying homage to Jesus and the redemptive power of his sacrificial death.
After 3 p.m., which is said to be the time when Christ died, the mood becomes solemn and sad. Christ is dead. Again, it is in cities where the change in mood is most intense, people retreating into their homes mainly because most shops shut down. Now what people do in their homes may be another matter. It used to be that even television and radio stations would go silent, but now with cable channels, DVDs and the Internet, there’s enough home entertainment until Easter Sunday.
Good and evil
In Filipino folk Catholicism, perceptions of Holy Week are filled with notions of powerful forces, good and evil. It begins as early as Palm Sunday, with churchgoers buying palm fronds and taking these into the church to be blessed. The palm fronds are supposed to commemorate Christ’s entry to Jerusalem but for many Filipinos, the blessed palm leaves are to be put on windows and doorways to ward off evil.
The succeeding days, until Good Friday, are perceived as days for recharging with supernatural power. The albularyo (herbalists) go to the mountains to gather and prepare medicinal plants, with the idea that the plants’ healing powers are more potent when harvested during this sacred time. There are rituals to these expeditions, using oraciones or prayers passed down from one generation to another.
In what may seem to be a contradiction, Holy Week is also a time for the mangkukulam or sorcerers, who believe that this is the best time to gather plants and other materials for their spells and hexes, amulets, charms and talismans. The convergence of healing and sorcery during Holy Week seems paradoxical but reflects the way people struggle with definitions of good and evil. A mangkukulam does not see his or her trade as evil, but as a way of harnessing supernatural powers to protect people or to punish wrongdoing and bring justice.
There is almost a crescendo in the forces of good as Holy Week unfolds, reaching a high point on Good Friday with Christ’s death. For Filipino Catholics especially, it is Christ’s suffering, and an imitation of that suffering, that is most powerful. (Protestants, on the other hand, while commemorating Christ’s death on Good Friday, prefer to emphasize Easter, Christ’s resurrection seen as a more potent symbol of salvation.)
The period between Good Friday noon and Easter Sunday morning is an interregnum as far as Filipino folk Catholicism goes. In politics, an interregnum is the period, marked by uncertainty and tension, that follows the death of a leader, or the period between governments.
I’ve heard two interpretations of this religious interregnum in the Philippines. One is that because God-as-Christ is dead, we are plunged into a time of great vulnerability. In the past (and maybe even in the present), older Filipinos used this notion of vulnerability to warn children to be quiet and not to be too rowdy.
The other interpretation, sometimes offered tongue in cheek, is that because God is dead, no one’s watching so anything goes, off to Boracay we go and let the partying begin.
In a way, we can say early religious leaders were too successful with the way they created a morality tied to a fear of God depicted as being everywhere and all-powerful, constantly intervening in human affairs with rewards and punishments. In effect, we are taught that we are under constant surveillance by a God that’s almost tantamount to a celestial CCTV (closed-circuit TV) system.
CCTV God was “on” almost 24/7, except for Good Friday noon to Easter Sunday morning, during which “Hala ka!” (a threat) gives way to “Hala bira (Let’s have fun)!’”
We see it all the time on the road. Even a functioning traffic light becomes nothing but blinking lights if there are no cops or traffic aides around. Like the Good Friday interregnum, the fear factor is suspended. But I predict that if we ever get a CCTV system in place on our roads and highways, photographing every traffic violation and being able to go after the violators with the evidence, Filipinos will begin to follow the traffic rules and regulations. Many business establishments are also getting CCTV systems because they believe the publicity around criminals being caught on CCTV has made the technology a crime-deterrent factor.
I would think our religious leaders should help instill a new morality that isn’t tied to divine CCTV-like surveillance. The Good Friday to Easter Sunday interregnum can be a good starting point as we challenge people with the question: If indeed CCTV God is turned off during this period, might it not be an excellent opportunity to show we can use our free will and choose to be good, without thinking of heavenly rewards or infernal punishment?
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