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Easter in the Philippines

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  • Paul DEVER
    This is a story of a cultural event in the Philippines that coincided with Holy Week. Any inaccuracies in the story are due to my misinterpretation, and not
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 21, 2003
      This is a story of a cultural event in the Philippines that coincided with
      Holy Week. Any inaccuracies in the story are due to my misinterpretation,
      and not anything anyone told me. The names have been changed to protect the
      innocent. There are photos that go with the story, but as some of them are
      a bit detailed, let me know if you want to see them.

      Easter in the Republic of the Philippines

      It is a tradition in the Philippines to go visit churches and do the 14
      Stations of the Cross on Maundy Thursday. It was the first time for me to
      do this. It was quite interesting. We got to the St. Joseph The Worker
      Parish in Palanan where Gigi grew up. We started at the first station, and
      read along the Station Prayer Book and followed with all the stations, some
      (like me!!!) learning the story about the trip to Calvary and how Jesus went
      from prison to Heaven. It was interesting to read it for the first time and
      walk all the stations. Each Sunday that I am in church I look at the
      stations and follow the history, but this was the first time I had gone
      around and seen them, and really contemplated the whole happening.

      This mass was special also. A young priest washed the feet of twelve
      people. At first, they seemed like Buddhist bonzes as many of them had
      close-cropped hair, but they were all Catholic. The mass finished and they
      had a short procession of the Blessed Sacrament around the church. This
      time they did not roll out Infant Jesus of Prague or the Black Nazarene or
      Mother Mary. They also had a prayer vigil until midnight.

      Afterwards, we began our small pilgrimage. First stop was the St. Alphonsus
      Church in Magallanes, a neighborhood in Metro Manila. It was a nice church
      with comfortable pews and fans blowing to keep the heat off us. Then to St.
      John Bosco which was a larger church which seems to get more in the
      offering box, because the pews were nicely arranged, and the music was piped
      in from a hidden source via speakers. There was a special arrangement on
      the altar, and there were many people around. Next stop was Greenhills
      Church located in�Greenhills. There we met a colleague from the embassy and
      her daughter. This church was like an auditorium and tastefully arranged.
      The altar was in the center and it too was arranged for Maundy Thursday.
      Forbes Park was the next place of worship to be visited. Air conditioning
      greeted us as we entered, and as we left, there was an former first lady
      there being seen going to church. Some noticed her, some didn�t. She left
      and got in her rented vehicle with chase car to go to the next church.
      The antepenultimate stop was the Edsa Shrine, which was a ways down the
      road. On our way, we saw many people performing their own sacrifice:
      walking to Edsa Shrine. It was about 5 K away, so it was a nice haul for
      them, a sacrifice worthy of mention. The penultimate church was Our Shrine
      of the Sacred Heart. This was a large cathedral that drew crowds from all
      around. There were a few stalls there selling food, so this must be a
      popular stop for people. You see, there is no set list of churches to
      visit: one is obliged to visit seven, that is all. One thing I remarked was
      that no two sets of stations were of the same media: those we found were
      made of stained glass, plaster, wooden placards, metal stand-alones, stone
      bas reliefs, etc.

      The last church was St. Joseph the Worker Parish which was also the first,
      but since that is where we had mass, it did not count. We stopped inside,
      offered our prayers and then went home. Tomorrow promised to start early
      and it was close to midnight already.

      Good Friday

      Friday morning for us started at four o�clock that found us getting up,
      preparing to leave for San Fernando, Pampanga. There we would see
      flagellants and a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I had
      actually wanted to do this since 1973, when a guy in third grade named
      Michael showed us slides of this. His father worked at the bases back then,
      and they made the trip. Ever since then, I have had a promise to myself to
      go there and see it. I never set a timetable, but the time had come.

      Our parish priest comes from hear there, and his mother offered to guide us
      to the event. Gigi and I went with Mr. Ralph Falzone, (my A100 buddy from
      the Fighting 105th!!!), to Gigi�s family�s house, and loaded up more family,
      and then off to the church rectory to get Mamang. We picked her up and were
      on the road by six am. Traffic might be heavy, if last week was any
      indication. The news reported heavy traffic starting Wednesday evening.
      (the president had declared Wednesday a non-working day for Philippine
      government employees, and the rest of the nation had Thursday and Friday
      off.) We were lucky�almost no traffic! So we got off the highway at the
      Macebebe exit and arrived in (Father Ray�s hometown) by 7:45 or so, and his
      mother invited us for breakfast�and a feast it was. There were uncountable,
      native delicacies of all shapes and sizes: puto, kutchinta, eggs, suman,
      maha blanca, palitao, pandesal, and coffee and hot chocolate. A special
      treat was fresh carabao milk, from water buffalo�Hmmm we could make real
      mozzarella�Before we left, we looked out he upstairs window and saw the
      whole town almost: city hall, cathedral, school, firehouse, etc. After
      that, we got a tour of the town, and an old town it is�the center round
      point has a memorial and it says: Palal, 1594.

      We saw the cathedral, which did look old. No one is sure exactly when, but
      the best they came up with is �during the Spanish era.� It had a few altars
      and the usual saints found in almost every church across the nation. Their
      stations of the cross were of cement reliefs, hand painted. It was a large
      church for such a small town. We headed towards San Fernando to see the
      sacrifices made by many. Before we left for town, we sauntered over to the
      crosses, and saw a few flagellants-to-be starting their own trek. They
      began by going up to a guy who had an old wooden brush with some shiny glass
      disks laid into the back of the brush. That explained it!!!!! He broke the
      skin of their backs for them with a few whacks on the left and right of the
      smalls of their backs. Once the blood flowed, they began their
      flagellation, and the blood began to spread across their backs. So it was
      not the flayed skin as we dreaded. We actually saw some of them afterwards,
      and it looks like heavily scraped skin once they are finished and all
      cleaned up.

      The road was quiet, clean and not at all crowded. As we approached the
      town, we saw bare-chested men with their heads covered in cloth from which
      they could see, but we could not. We saw their whips (turned out they were
      roped that had either bamboo rods or wooden dowels attached to them with
      which they would beat their backs. They were flagellating themselves in a
      left to right motion going around their sides as opposed to over the
      shoulder if you ever saw �The Name of the Rose.� Their backs were indeed
      bloody, and it looked as though the skin had been flayed from their back,
      but we were to learn differently later. We also got an explanation why they
      cover their faces. At first we heard so they would not splatter blood in
      their eyes (we got a few drops on the car�), but it is more selfless than
      that. They do it so they are not recognized. As it is a sacrifice, they do
      it to please God, not to show others that they did it. My father once told
      me �to give anonymously is to give twice�, so in a sense they were giving

      We then saw more flagellants as we drove closer. We thought we would have to
      walk the three miles to get to the Calvary, but no�the skills of the top
      notch driver, and the expert directions from Mamang got us all the way to
      the hill with the three crosses. We were early; only three other cars were
      there. See? It does pay to get to the airport three hours early� Yes, the
      crosses were already up there. There was a fence around the hill to keep
      people away, and there were vendors all over the place: coconut juice,
      hotdogs (fish I am sure, as it was Good Friday, the day of all days to
      abstain from meat), squid balls, mangoes, bananas, plantains, coke, green
      apple drink, etc.

      There were rumors that it would start soon, that it would begin at 12 (three
      hours away), or even at three o�clock. Ralph and I decided to walk around
      and see what�s what. It was a nice trek into town, and the one thing we
      noticed was that the people were friendly to us, not hostile to the
      interlopers who came to their town once a year for this sacrifice, which
      seemed a tourist attraction to them. There was an occasional �How are you�,
      only one �Hey, Joe�, and a few �Good Mornings�. We even got a �Welcome to
      the Philippines� with a smile from a young lass in a jeepney.

      On the way, we saw more flagellants, some of whom lay prostrate on the
      ground, and someone would either take their whips or use their own reeds of
      bamboo or palm and strikes their buttocks or their back. Later I asked why
      this was done, and it was further re-creation of the Final Walk of Jesus
      when the crowd beat him on his way to Calvary. Ralph pointed out to me some
      Roman soldiers. Wow, I thought, this is going to be great! A true
      re-enactment, which would save me from having to scour the video stores
      Saturday to find that copy of Jesus Christ Superstar.

      We saw signs of the times: One Way (for vehicles), This Way to Calvary (for
      us), and Beware of Pickpockets (for everyone). There was a heavy police
      presence, and a few military guys in blue fatigues (or were they special
      police), and the Barangay peacekeepers, so any worries that we were in
      danger quickly dissipated. The most danger we faced was getting blood spilt
      on us. The town was ready for the tourists and the pilgrims and to my
      knowledge everyone felt welcome.

      We moseyed on back to the car and sat with the others, the AC on full blast.
      At about 11 o�clock, we saw some of the flagellants running back, and
      decided to see they were Jesus and the two thieves. Nope, just some plain
      old flagellants who had finished their sacrifice, and bowed to the crosses,
      and took off their masks, and went to get washed up. But we figured: the
      crowd was gathering, we were in a good position (the cement pillar of the
      fence surrounding the crosses), so we should stake out our claims.
      Rightfully so. More people came, and people were jockeying for positions.

      The authorities showed up, and allowed people with press passes to enter the
      gate to get access to the crosses. Thee was Reuters, AP, ABS-CBN, Channel
      9, and a few other recognized media people there. Others tried to bluff
      their way in: �Can�t you let me in? I am writing an article on this�; �I
      came all the way from XXX to see this, please let me in�, and that one
      phrase that made me cringe and want to curl up into a ball: �I am an
      American, you have to let me in�. I swear to that guy�s father, she said
      it. To top it off, she had slept during her cultural sensitivity and
      awareness training class: she was wearing shorts and a halter top to this
      hallowed sacrificial event; her daughter in short shorts and a
      spaghetti-strap tee-shirt. Some other guy said, �I am from New York�,
      showed his driver�s license and was let in. Another guy used that tried and
      true method: he showed his driver�s license from Jersey and showed the guard
      200 reasons he should be let in. It worked. Me? I was able to get in, but
      I can�t tell you how.

      Then the real circus started. Every bad example of pushy journalist was
      personified there. Talk about jockeying for position. When some of the
      future crucifiees showed up, the reporters mobbed them. Of course, the
      taller ones migrated to the front so those that were vertically challenged
      were not able to appreciate the images. I decided to pan the crowd to see
      how many people came. I am jot good at crowds, but it was more than a
      thousand, and maybe even ten thousand�how many people can fill up a football

      One man tried to keep order, and asked the crowd to respect to locals who
      were here to witness it also, else the interlopers risked being stoned. How
      apt. He was not too successful, but the people were a bit more polite when
      the police showed up and asked the to clear a passage for the Mother Mary,
      Mary Magdalena and Veronica to come up. Shortly afterwards some of the
      crucifiees showed up, and the spectacle began. Amazingly the ones who
      represented Jesus looked like his depictions. The others looked as I guess
      thieves condemned to death by exposure should.

      The time had come�Jesus was sitting, reflecting on what he was about to do,
      and of course, some of the XXXers were in front of him snapping away and
      obscured the view for us others. I got up there is my best diplomatic poise
      and said, �Could we all move back so the Kapampangans can watch their own
      sacrificial event? This is their show.� I guess they were caught up in
      their rapture. I did however manage to get the two women in shorts to move
      back a bit. Anywho, they eventually dispersed a bit, and Jesus then went on
      the cross. It was impossible to see them nail his hands into the cross, but
      I did later see the preparations made: they used Green Cross alcohol
      to sterilize the feet and hands, the nails were nice and shiny, and they got
      them in there with one whack each. Little if on blood showed. They did the
      hands first, and then raised the cross. Afterwards, they nailed the feet,
      but not on all of them. Some they just nailed between the big toes and the
      index toe.

      The crowd ooed and awed, and then he was up there for a few minutes. They
      did not last very long, as the pain was tremendous. As some went up, the
      others went down. They either had one hammer, or one person who was
      trained/authorized to do it. So there were never more than two up there, at
      least while we were present. We saw that it was going to be more of the
      same, so we left after they raised about six of them. I caught one on tape
      who was communicating directly with God, or so it seemed. His head on high,
      raised towards the heavens, and he was constantly talking, but it seemed in
      places he stopped talking and listened, then talked again. He showed no
      signs of pain, but rather that he felt no pain. Honestly speaking I
      remember remarking to Ralph that he seemed to be a bit out of it. Maybe
      they have hypnotized themselves or something so they feel no pain. Some not
      all, since there were a couple of them who did feel the pain and were not
      afraid to show it.

      Once we realized that more and more people were getting up the hill and
      crowding around, and that it was to be more of the same, we decided to move
      on. We headed into town and stopped at Mamang�s sister�s house. There we
      found a bountiful feast of fish, fish and�fish. No meat for this day.
      There were lobster tails, steamed fish, and baked fish, as well as stuffed
      fish. We learned that this house had been partially buried by the lahar of
      the early 90�s. It looks like they had to dig about two feet of volcanic
      mud from their house. It brought to mind the trip we took seven years ago
      to a region ravaged by Mt. Pinatubo and standing on the roofs of houses
      three stories tall. Luckily, one each of the crucified and the flagellants
      came by their house. We saw the scars form the crucified one and there were
      small holes where the nails went in. They must have had a doctor do the
      nailing since he did not show any signs of impairment. The back of the
      flagellant showed what looked like the equivalent of deep knee scrapes like
      you got when you fell off your bike. There was no sign of trauma due to the
      exacerbation of the wounds by the rattan whippets.
      We had a quiet ride home, as everyone was tired. I was glad I had come, and
      glad that my coming got some others to see the world around them. Like New
      Yorkers who have never been to the Statue of Liberty, some of our traveling
      companions had never been to San Fernando to see the sacrificial event. My
      work is not yet done�

      Black Saturday

      This was a day of rest. The most fun we had was bowling. I did not fare as
      well as I usually do, but I did manage to break 150�I did notice one thing.
      All the Jesus� were covered. It struck me as odd, since I am used to seeing
      either Mother Mary, or Jesus almost on every street corner, at all the
      Barangay halls, and in many stores. Then it dawned on me�Jesus was dead on
      Saturday and had not yet risen, so he was �not there.�

      Easter Sunday

      Easter Sunday say us get up at 3:00am, and head out to the salubong.
      Salubong is a procession that culminates in the meeting of Jesus and Mother
      Mary, who was adorned with a veil, in mourning. We knew it was starting
      when we heard drums loud enough to wake the dead�Hmmm. I guess we were. We
      joined the procession and behind us was the float with Jesus on it. We were
      all following three men, two with huge candles and one with a huge
      crucifixion. Many of us carried candles and spoke in somber tones. The
      drumbeats managed to drown out the conversations. We were headed to the
      Parish, but took the long way. We had to get there at the same time as
      Mother Mary. We finally arrived at the church and gathered out front in time
      to see the two floats converge, Jesus on one side and Mother Mary on the
      other. Father Ray beckoned me to his side. I was not sure why, but
      followed his lead. As I turned around, I noticed there was an angel on
      high. Actually it was a child in a chair being lowered on a rope.

      Her duty was to lift the veil of Mother Mary once she saw that Jesus was no
      longer dead. After a few tries, she managed to pull it off, literally. The
      crowd applauded, and the fireworks began. Yes, from the spires of the
      church shot fireworks into the sky marking the return of Jesus. Then we
      celebrated mass. The day had just begun�

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