By Gel Santos Relos
This week is Holy Week. Yet, it is business as usual here in America. Sa Pilipinas, Miyerkules Santo pa lang ng tanghali, wala nang pasok sa eskwela at maraming opisina. And so as we reflect on the season of Lent, allow me to share my memories of the rituals of our semana santa in the Philippines.
Lent is the season of the year when Metro Manila seems to be a ghost town---no traffic! Many of our kababayans go out of town during this very long holiday. Some go home to their families in the provinces while some take advantage of the long break to have a long family vacation abroad or in some exotic local resort destination.
Before the modernization of Holy Week in the Philippines, I remember it to be a quiet, somber time of the year growing up in Manila. Bakit ba parang kasagsagan ng init at alinsangan kapag Holy Week? From Holy Monday to Thursday, I recall how the sun shone so bright, the heat building up until Good Friday. Then, as if on cue, rain pours down, releasing that hot “singaw” on the pavement, with a distinctive smell of “alimuong”, believed to cause “kabag”(gas pain) or stomach ache.
"Semana Santa" or Holy Week would begin on Palm Sunday. I recall going to church with my family, and on the church yard and pavement, you could see all the "palaspas" for sale. They were not just ordinary palm leaves--they were intricately and beautifully designed palm leaves that are blessed by the priest before, during, or after mass while people sang "Halleluja, Hosanna"! We would bring the "palaspas" home and believed it will protect our home from any "malas" throughout the year! As a child, I was a little bored, found the gospel too long as the whole passion of Christ was read. Later, they became more creative in presentation and had the Parish Priest read Jesus' lines, the Assistant Parish Priest played the support roles, and the lector was the narrator. It was like listening to a radio drama!
Back then, there was no cable TV. There were no video games, cellphones nor was the internet in existence yet. There were only a few phone lines to make “telebabad.” Radio programming was limited to playing only solemn classical music and religious songs. On TV, I distinctly remember growing up to Fr. Peyton’s “Mysteries of the Holy Rosary”---a film illustrating the passion of Jesus Christ, with reflections and prayers of Fr. Peyton interspersed with the movie. Do you recall that Jesus' face was never shown throughout the film?Palagi siyang nakatalikod! And of course, that film was still in black and white.
Of course, this was also the time of the year when we were not allowed to play, make noise, laugh and be “makulit” simply because “Patay pa ang Diyos.” I do not remember how we were able to be well-behaved and pre-occupied then!
During Good Friday and Black Saturday, I remember how we abstained from eating meat. Staple food during Lent would be ginisang munggo, sarciadong itlog, and sardines. Wealthier families would serve the traditional “bacalao”, a delicious Spanish dish made of dried cod slowly stewed in extra virgin olive oil, roasted garlic, red bell pepper and garbanzos.
I remember going to Cainta, Rizal to watch the “parade” of men who would whip themselves until their backs bled. There are also those who participate in the re-enactment of Jesus’ passion, having people play the roles of Jesus, the soldiers, townspeople, etc., --from the carrying of the cross around town, all the way to crucifixion! Yes, some men and women have themselves crucified, literally, to share in the agony of Jesus Christ. This has been their “Panata” or promise/offering to God for their own intentions or for having their prayers answered.
In our own respective neighborhoods, we have the “Pabasa.” Here, people (mostly women) would sing the story of the passion of Jesus before the altar. People would take turns and shifts so that the "Pabasa"will be recited and sang non-stop. The host family serves snacks day and night, and commits to this tradition as their “panata” or pact with God.
Neighborhoods would also organize the block rosary and stations of the cross where followers pray together and make stops at delegated houses (serving as the 14 stations--or is it 16 now? of the cross). The houses would have makeshift altars where prayers and reflections on each station of the cross were made.
I remember my family going through the stations of the cross in the Church, the adoration of the blessed sacrament, lighting of candles in prayer, the re-enactment of the “washing of the feet” by the parish priest and his ministers and confession. Some families follow the tradition of “visita iglesia”, where they visit and pray in nine (or was it 12?) churches like in a novena, which is again part of the “Panata” to God.
Before the Easter egg hunt and Easter bunny became popular, I remember Easter starting at dawn in the Philippines. We would be awakened by the “paputok” (fireworks), and the ringing of church bells and handbells to invite people to come and witness the “salubong.” This tradition of “salubong” is organized by the church, consisting of two separate processions—one has the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the other has the statue of the resurrected Christ. The two processions meet, and together walk to church as one group to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus in the Easter mass.
Some people criticize the rituals and traditions Filipinos observe every year during Holy Week. They say that these are too reminiscent of pagan practices. Sociologists, however, explained the importance of rituals and traditions.
We need them to maintain order in any organization, from one that is as small as a family, to a congregation as big as the Catholic Church -- with billions of followers. Rituals and traditions provide structure and rhythm to help followers find time and a means to reflect on the message of Lent -- the fulfillment of the promise of God's salvation through the death of His own Son, Jesus Christ on the cross and His resurrection after three days which signifies eternal life.
Rituals and tradition help us pass on this message of faith from one generation to another. Let us remember, though, that these rituals and traditions are just a means and not the end themselves. Let us live God’s gift of salvation and love every moment of our life.
What are your memories of "Semana Santa" in the Philippines? How do you spend the Lenten Season where ever you may be? Please share!