‘Pabasa’: Lenten ritual and family tradition
This is about Lent, but not the Lent associated with penance, sacrifice and repentance for sins as symbolized by the biblical “sackcloth and ashes.” It is more about our extended family’s long history of religious attachment to a familiar Lenten tradition: The pabasa ng pasyon, or simply pabasa.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines describes the pabasa as “an epic poem in stanzas of five lines of eight syllables.” Apparently, it was originally intended by the Church as an instrument for evangelization. Thus, the Spanish friars used it as a means to indoctrinate the faithful in the early years of Christianity in the Philippines.
The book used for the pabasa is titled “Pasyong Mahal,” with the cross-carrying Nazarene on its cover, implying that it is about Christ’s passion. A scrutiny of its contents, however, would reveal that it is not just about the passion, that in fact the subject matter of the pabasa is the whole history of salvation from the creation of the world to Christ’s passion, death and resurrection from the dead.
The book is written in the old but beautiful, rhythmic Tagalog. And though pabasa literally means “reading,” it is not read but traditionally chanted or sung a cappella in a mellow, slow and monotonous tone that reminds one of the haunting lamentations of old provincial folk at the death of a family member. The whole pabasa is also customarily done without interruption from the beginning until the whole book is finished.
Depending on the organizer or host, a pabasa is done any day between the first Sunday of Lent and Good Friday. It is commonly carried out in village chapels or houses before a makeshift altar adorned with pictures and statues of saints and of the suffering Christ.
The sponsor or host of a pabasa is normally a family or clan whose elders have made a panata (vow) to hold it yearly in thanksgiving for blessings received from God. And that is how our extended family (the Gabriel-Mendiola clan) came up not only with one but in fact two pabasa every Lenten season.
Our first pabasa was started by my grandparents on my mother’s side, Mariano and Lucia Gabriel of Pulilan, Bulacan.
The story handed on to us goes that sometime in the early 1900s Mariano, who lived in Tabing Ilog (riverside), chanced upon a large chunk of moss-covered wood floating in the river while he was fishing. He retrieved the wood with the intention to use it as firewood later. But after cleaning it, and upon closer inspection, what had seemed like an ordinary piece of wood turned out to be a rare icon of the Blessed Mother Mary. The icon, sculpted in hard wood, depicts Mary carrying the Infant Jesus and breastfeeding Him—a scene seldom portrayed in art forms at that time and, perhaps, even today.
My grandfather reverently wrapped the unusual icon in his clean shirt, took it home and presented it to my grandmother. She had it blessed by the parish priest and then enshrined at the family altar. Soon, the women, especially the mothers in the clan, found that their prayers to God were being answered. They attributed the apparent “miracles” of healing and favors received to the intercession of the breastfeeding Blessed Mother. The clan thereafter decided to hold a pabasa in her honor every second Sunday of Lent.
I still remember the early days when Mariano Gabriel’s clan, which includes our immediate family (the Mendiolas) from Nueva Ecija, would gather at our old ancestral home in Pulilan on the second Sunday of Lent for the pabasa. There, we would meet our grandparents, uncles, aunts and numerous cousins, turning the religious gathering into a clan reunion. But first, all of us had to observe silence throughout the entire pabasa while singers took turns in singing the pasyon. When the pabasa was done, a fiesta atmosphere followed. Everyone, including the singers and other guests, were then treated to a sumptuous meal prepared by my grandmother Lucia.
When my grandparents died, the Gabriel siblings alternately hosted the pabasa in their respective houses where the icon was transferred every year. Then, some years back, upon the death of the last of the siblings, the family’s century-old icon of the breastfeeding Virgin Mother was brought back to the same place where it all began: in my grandparents’ place in Pulilan. And to this day, it is the younger generation of Gabriels who still observe the pabasa in Pulilan every second Sunday of Lent, to continue a family tradition.
Our family’s second pabasa was initiated by my brother Renato. He was diagnosed with stage-three nasopharyngeal cancer sometime in 1983. He went into remission after treatment, returned to his job, and enjoyed relatively good health for some 20 years during which he made and fulfilled his vow to hold another pabasa. His family has never failed to host a pabasa every year, either in our hometown in San Jose, Nueva Ecija, or at his house in Marikina when Palm Sunday comes around.
The cancer returned early in 2006 and took my brother’s life in November that same year. After his death, the Mendiolas continued to observe to this day his panata to hold a pabasa every Palm Sunday.
Come to think of it now, our two pabasa have become a ritual and a family Lenten tradition that we want to pass on to the next generations of Gabriels and Mendiolas. They have given us not only a sense of belonging to a family or clan, but also spiritual strength and many blessings.
Danilo G. Mendiola, a retired HR and admin practitioner, does volunteer work in his Quezon City parish as a pastoral counselor. He has four children and four grandchildren.
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