Friday, April 14, 2006

Easter in the Phils

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 & Ne
w 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; certain
ly 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!


Ed said...

I've put Resurrection Sunday on my list of things to experience someday in the RP. I've seen lots of pictures like the ones you posted but I'm sure it is nothing compared to being an actual witness to the event.

PhilippinesPhil said...

By all means, Holy Week is a good time to come over anyway, before the rains start up again.

Actually, Resurrection Day is the day to go to church and celebrate mass if your Catholic, or to attend services if your protestant. The day you want to experience, Ed, is Black Friday. That is the day, TODAY as a matter of fact, when all the drama is played out.

I think the best way to do it is the way I saw it today, on a scooter. As you buzz along on the streets through all the barrios, there is literally something to see every other block or so. It really is amazing, the extent of the participation. It's one of the reasons I LOVE this country and Filipinos!

Amadeo said...

You not only hit upon a good point about Cuaresma, because it is also the core and anchor upon which Christian theology and worship is hitched to. Without the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, Christianity would have been a farce.

Now this truth is somehow lost in many present-day Christians, who prefer instead to cater to the decidedly crass commercialism that Christmas has become.

I am glad that the Jesuits in the PI who taught us religion from catechism to theology impressed upon us this important fact.

Thus, there may be a need to re-orient our sights and priorities.

Again, good post. Though, personally I find some of the more extreme religious practices too melodramatic and counter-productive, no thanks to some of my jaded views as a Filipino.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Amadeo, I think your being jaded comes from your Americanism! (grin)

Too melodramatic? Melodrama is this place's lifeblood my man! They don't make a TV show or a movie over here unless they drip with the stuff. My wife loves 'em, but I can't take 'em for more than a few minutes... Can you blame me? heh heh

Nick Ballesteros said...

Now I have time to read this post (sneaking in some time in the office harhar)

I usually close the apartment door and lights during Christmas season because of the endless stream of carollers who are basically the same set of kids. Humbug!

Owing to the fact that I have fear of blood, I found your post quite difficult to read while the photos tried to grab my attention. Must be because I almost chopped my finger off when I was a kid. Anyways, it must have been an exhilirating experience to see this. How I'd love to see the Moriones festival in my mother's hometown of Marinduque where Longines, the soldier who pierced Jesus' side, is given a supporting role. Plus it's less bloody. I wanted to have one of the masks in case my mother goes home but she said those are not for sale and are being used by the people as part of their Holy Week penance.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Wat, I'm sure you're right about all the various types of Holy Week dramas that take place all over these islands. I'd like to travel to a different place every year and experience as many as possible.

Amadeo says he doesn't care for the over-dramatized events that go on during this time, but I disagree. I think Americans do not really understand the blood, gore and pain that surrounded the original events of The Passion. Over here, it's in your face and by no means is it counterproductive. It was a horrible thing to have happen to someone, but it did, and to understand it, you must accept that a lot of spilt blood was involved. I get a little uneasy around blood myself, especially if its mine! Otherwise, no prob.

Kevin said...

You made the Mudville Gazette!

Way cool.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I'm in MG? whoo hoo! That's the big time, ne?

Nick Ballesteros said...

If I may butt in, what's the Mudville Gazette?

PhilippinesPhil said...

The Mudville Gazette is military blog, and quitely read by US military types all around the world... pretty exciting stuff for me... My brother suggested I apply my site and next thing you know....!

niceheart said...

When I was a kid, we lived across an Iglesia ni Cristo church and I remember hearing the Passion chanted (in microphone and speakers) all day long during the Holy Week. I wonder if they still do that over there.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hi Nice, I'm not sure what the Iglesias call it, but the Catholics call the chanting of prayers a Novena, and its done all over the Phils.

The Iglesia ni Cristos have an interesting history; are you familiar with it?

niceheart said...

Not really, Phil.

PhilippinesPhil said...

The INC was started by a man named Manalo. Read about him here