A Reflection on Holy Week in the Philippines

For many people, especially the young ones, there’s a sort of uneasy feeling that comes with this week. We are a nation that is used to noise, and Holy Week calls for tamping down of all that noise, for a bit of solemnity and quiet reflection.

holy week
Holy Week in the Philippines

So on Good Friday, on the day that Jesus dies on the cross, loud speakers in flea markets and outside newly opened fast food joints will be silenced. No more Psy, Justin Bieber, or aggressive rap on this day. TV celebrities will go on vacation, so there will be the standard Lenten offerings on all the TV stations—The Ten Commandments, Passion of Christ, Ben Hur. To this day, whenever I see the Ten Commandments, I always think of the Lenten season, since it was all that I could watch on TV during Lent when I was a kid. Now that we have cable, things are different of course, to the relief of those who feel kind of squirmy about this holiday. There’s something about the lack of crowds and noise that’s unsettling to those who are used to it. Think about it—imagine a day when all the shops are closed, all the people are off the streets, and the only sounds that you will hear are the low murmurs of your TV broadcasting the standard Lent special. For others, this might seem like the zombie apocalypse. To our elders, it’s a chance to pray, reflect, and relish this one day of silence and contemplate on the life of the one of gave His life to save the people He loves.

Though we are a predominantly Catholic nation, many people have forgotten what Lent is all about. Observe the yuppies and teenagers, as they wring their hands and say, “Oh, Starbucks will be closed! Where am I gonna get my coffee now?” Or how about, “The groceries will be closed for Lent? What if I have a hankering for chips? Or ice cream?” And the classic, “The Metro’s boring right now. Let’s go to Boracay, who’s with me?” It’s enough to make me want to bang my head against the wall and have less faith on the present generation.

For the young, Holy Week means a day spent partying at the beach. For the elders, it’s all about rituals and practices that they observe, but some of them have clearly evolved to fit the times.

Ash Wednesday

Forty days before the Easter Sunday, a mass is held to usher in preparations for the Holy Week. Upon coming out of the church, you will have a black smudge on your forehead in the shape of a cross, placed there by the officiating priest. I remember when I was a young teenage girl from a Catholic school, if one of us came home without that black smudge, that person would be interrogated by the nuns who ran the school to know where that unfortunate person has been on that particular Wednesday, since it’s a telltale sign that he or she has not been to church.

Palm Sunday or Palaspas

palm sunday
Palm Sunday in the Philippines

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he was greeted with a flurry of palm fronds, some people waving it in the air, and some laying them down on the road. Nowadays, vehicles and pedestrians making their way into church vicinities are swamped by vendors of palm leaves. The palaspas costs between 10 and 30 pesos, depending on the intricacy of the design. During the final blessing of Palm Sunday mass, the priest calls everyone to have their palaspas blessed. Afterwards, the blessed palm fronds are hung outside doors and windows of homes.

The Moriones Festival

Moriones Festival in Marinduque

This festival is held in Marinduque to commemorate the story of Longinus, the Roman soldier who was blind in one eye. When Jesus was pierced on his side by a spear, the blood that spattered and landed on Longinus cured him, and he regained sight in his afflicted eye. He immediately converted to Christianity after that miracle. The people of Marinduque wear colorful masks of Roman soldiers and celebrate the miracles of Christ’s sacrifice.

Washing of the Feet

As a true reminder to everyone that Jesus was a humble King, on the eve of the Last Supper, He washed the apostles’ feet, yes, even the feet of Judas was washed by Jesus Himself. As a symbolic act of cleansing, priests invite the faithful to have their feet dipped into Holy Water as they kneel to do the act. This tradition was initially observed by wealthy Manileños as they go to small towns in Iloilo and Davao as they attempt to be worthy of Jesus’ teaching, “Love your neighbor as I have loved you”.

Bisita Iglesia

Traffic builds up in Metro Manila as many head out to their provinces for their hometown rituals, or simply for a holiday, as Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday are all non-working holidays. But another cause of traffic is the crowds of young people who walk from one church to another to say their prayers. Parked cars line the sidewalks outside the churches to accommodate visitors who follow the tradition of going to seven churches to perform the Station of the Cross. Legend has it that if you go to a church that you’ve never been to, you can make a wish. Others insist that you need to bite a piece of rock from the vicinity of the church before you make a wish.

Silence and Fasting on Good Friday

Davaoenos firmly follow a rule of silence on this day. Absolutely no music shall be played in public places. Many provinces like Rizal and some churches in Manila participate in a rosary procession behind an image of the mourning Holy Mother of Jesus. Pampangueños and Batangueños do the Pasyon, or the reenactment of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ recited as an epic poem. This is also the last day of the series of Pabasa, or the reading of verses of the Bible. There is an exchange of dialogue between groups of readers, and this can go on for hours. To ensure that this tradition will be kept, younger participants of the Pabasa are allowed to recite the verses rapper style (I shudder while I’m writing this part). Food and drinks are stationed nearby to sustain the devotees, with coffee being the most requested beverage in these gatherings.

Some people fast on Good Friday, and others deny themselves their favorite foods as a form of sacrifice. There’s a widespread belief that eating pork or any type of meat is prohibited on Good Friday, so almost everyone is expected to dine on a meal of fish or vegetables on this day.

Self-flagellation and Crucifixion

Devotees scourge themselves

Possibly the most striking feature of the Holy Week celebrations in the Philippines is the sight of Filipinos publicly scourging themselves. Though this practice is not endorsed by the Catholic church, this does not stop many people from abroad to come and witness these reenactments of the humiliation and death of Jesus Christ. Some Filipinos not only whip their backs into a bloody mess, they also have their feet and hands nailed to a wooden cross. There are some individuals who do this every year, either as atonement for past sins, or as an act of devotion. In Manila, Tondo is the place to see these flagellants. Outside the capital, Pampanga and Nueva Ecija are famous for their participants who cover their heads with white cotton hoods while they scourge themselves. Crowns of thorns are placed on their heads to cause cuts and lacerations to bleed.

Easter Sunday

This is a celebration of the resurrection of Christ. The festivities begin as early as four o’ clock in the morning, as yawning crowds make their way towards churches. Filipinos do a salubong ceremony commemorating how the Virgin Mary met her son Jesus who has come back to life. In some provinces, a little girl is strapped to a harness and hovers over everyone while she sings a song of exultation. On Easter Sunday, all stores and malls reopen, and life goes back to normal in the Metro and the rest of the country.

One does not need to be a Catholic to observe Holy Week. There are people who may not be religious, but are spiritual. Rituals, mass, traditions—these are all elements of religion and culture. Lent is not about walking on your knees in the middle of the church, starving yourself, or praying the rosary over and over again, or even hurting oneself to be absolved. It is a celebration and appreciation of the One who sacrificed Himself to save all mankind, through contemplation, sincere prayer, and good deeds to honor God.

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