I have got to get a USB splitter, so I can start playing photojournalist, especially during times like these, when there is so much going on to take pictures of. I have a perfectly fine digital camera, but no spare USB port on my pc to plug into. My new Blog pal, Jeannie, asked for more photos of life in the Phils, so I'll make an effort to take some digi-snaps for her and other likeminded folks.For those of you “lapsed” types out there, this is Holy Week—the days of the Last Supper, Gethsemane, Peter’s denial, the scourging, the crowning of thorns, Pilate’s mock trial, the crucifixion, and finally, Resurrection Sunday itself—or Easter, as secularists prefer to call it. But as I intimated above, I was just witness to one intriguing scene after another, all out there in the dusty sun-drenched streets of Angeles City, and me without a camera!
The Philippines has two BIG holidays—the combo of Christmas & New Years for one (those two really can’t be separated here), AND Holy Week. All the other holidays are merely days offs to most Filipinos. But, if I were forced to choose a FAVORITE Holiday over here, it would definitely be Easter, and for a couple of unexpected reasons, or so you may think. Stay tuned for them.
Before getting into why I love Easter here above all other holidays, let me say that in the Phils there is NO mistaking what these days are all about. During Holy Week, Filipinos are well reminded of their belief that Jesus died on the cross and then, three days later, arose from the dead. There are no Easter bunnies and brightly colored eggs in this country to confuse people as to the original meaning of the occasion. What you DO see are lines of men, anywhere from six to a dozen, walking through the streets, with throngs of friends and relatives leading and following them. These men, trudging single file, are shirtless, clad only in sandals or bare feet, and to signify humility, as well as due to the staining spatters of blood; they wear their oldest and most threadbare jeans.
Some of these contrite fellows also wear “crowns of thorns” fashioned of barbed wire, or more usually, from vines or palm fronds. Another interesting custom is the wearing of a red hood--the red color probably to signify Christ's blood--that completely covers the face and head, and gives the wearer a spooky, anonymous look. ALL of these fellows flagellate themselves with leather straps or ropes, first over one shoulder, and then over the other, and they all do so in unison. The leather or rope “scourges” are tipped with pieces of sharpened bamboo to increase the pain of their contrition, and to rupture the skin more easily and dramatically.
The sound of prayers spoken in unison; the measured slapping and pounding against backs; and battered skin, bright red with blood; certainly make for theatrical effect; but these guys aren’t just showing off or merely acting out parts. One of my Filipino friends has a brother in one of the “scourge lines” this year; he’s doing it because, in his words, he wants to show God in a real way that he is sorry for his sins, and now wants to try to change his life. It’s easy for Westerners to belittle such sentiment, but they shouldn’t. These guys are for real.
As I rode my scooter from place to place today, going about my business, I didn’t just see one or two of these gripping scenes played out. No, these types of processions continually stopped traffic, blessedly light during this non-working “Black Friday.” Among the many groups of scourgers, I also witnessed at least a half dozen street “Passion Plays.”
These recreations feature a man dressed convincingly as Christ, bearing a heavy wooden cross over his shoulder. He drags this heavy cross down the street for blocks, again with followers calling out encouragement and openly praying as one. Along the way, this Jesus will struggle and fall, just as described in the testaments. Some of these processions also include other actors dressed in the bright red uniforms of Roman soldiers while carrying swords and wearing helmets. I observed one of these “soldiers” cruelly brandishing a whip, which he snapped and cracked realistically over and around the worn out Christ.
I passed four of these Calvary style productions; one so elaborate and well attended that traffic was stopped for five minutes. We waited while Jesus; his retinue of Roman soldiers, his mother Mary, some apostles, and Mary Magdalene, all crossed through a busy intersection. The good thing about being on a scooter is that I simply passed the lines of stacked up cars and drove right to the front of the action. I did this once, passing a bit too close to a scourger, and one of his blows glanced across my own shoulder. Ouch. Good thing my shirt was of dark material, or it would have been stained up a bit by the transfer of his blood.
Do you see now why I wish I had had my camera? People who live here get used to seeing such things, stuff you just don’t see in other places of the world, especially in the USA. And just up the road, in the City of San Fernando, they actually nail men to crosses, driving actual sharpened steel spikes through the palms of volunteer Jesus’s. All of these people go through this agony for personal reasons, to atone for past sins, or as a way of asking God for help in their lives. Now THAT is hardcore!
So, getting back to my original question—why Easter is my favorite holiday in the Philippines:
Well aside from the visuals I describe above, for one, I love it because it’s QUIET. Christmas and New Years turn this place into a veritable “war zone.” Every night for the last two or three weeks of December, people set off firecrackers and skyrockets, sometimes for no apparent reason and at ridiculously late evening or early morning hours. What is THAT all about? I always thought Christmas was about “holy night, SILENT night!”
And finally, I am fond of Easter here because it DOESN’T mean presents and gifts. As a matter of fact, if I were forced to sacrifice a holiday, it would BE Christmas. I say, who needs it anyway? A true Christian understands that the real significance of Christ is represented by his resurrection, and NOT by his birth. (Not to mention that Jesus was actually born in April anyway!) It’s hard not to become cynical about Christmas when greetings of “Merry Christmas sir!” are almost always coupled with an outstretched open hand. Groan and Bah, Humbug!