Fr Leonard E Dollentas
Holy Week in the Philippines is an emotion-packed series of religious ceremonies, reminiscent of Christendom’s most cherished traditions. A good number of these Holy Week practices are still part of the distinct Filipino religiosity. Many of us Filipinos, although now caught up in the fast-paced and convenient life, still treasure those moments when we observe Holy Week with all solemnity and mystery. Here are some of those traditions:
The Pabasa ng Pasyon (reading of the Passion of Jesus)— is one of the oldest Holy Week traditions in the Philippines. It is the singing or reading of a story of the Passion of Jesus set to verse. The Pabasa ritual builds on a tradition of epic singing that predates Christianity’s rise in the Philippines. It is prayed over a 24-hour period in the first few days of Holy Week, in front of an altar decorated with flowers, candles, lights, and an image of Jesus Christ. This practice in the Philippines continues in barangays and barangay halls, chapels and in some homes in the Philippines. Modern Filipino Pabasa is carried out by younger generations of Filipinos. From the original monotone verse chanting, the singing has adopted a modern twist that resembles the rapper’s tone. A notable aspect of Pabasa is food offered by the host to those who drop by and join the chanting.
Visit Iglesia (Visiting Church) is a Filipino Lenten tradition of visiting 7 churches, traditionally done on the night of Maundy Thursday as a pilgrimage to 7 altars of repose where the Holy Eucharist – the consecrated body of Christ is enthroned and venerated by the faithful. The choice of seven Churches by many devotees has reference to the Seven Last Words of Jesus. The faithful may visit 14 churches to match the 14 Stations of the Cross, and a few try to cover even more churches. In the olden times, this was fulfilled by some devotees walking barefoot from church to church. Nowadays, Filipino Catholics do so by car, traveling with families and friends to visit churches further apart, even combining it, less penitentially, with sightseeing on the side, so long as that does not undermine the real intention of the trip. Even by car, the journey requires a great deal of planning to be able to visit seven churches before they close at midnight, given the traffic. Visita Iglesia always ends in a restaurant, with the family or groups fulfilling it by having a good Lenten meal together.
Siete Palabras and Good Friday Observances
The main activity on Good Friday is the Siete Palabras (Seven Last Words), starting in churches from 12:00 noon and ending at 3:00 p.m. when Jesus died. The Siete Palabras comprise the reflection and meditation given by priests on the seven last words of Jesus. The activity starts at noon for some churches and ends at 3:00 pm with the Good Friday liturgy and Veneration of the Cross. The activity in the afternoon is highlighted by the procession of the image of the dead body of Christ (Santo Entierro). In the evening, the Soledad (Our Lady of Sorrows) procession commences. The high point of this procession is the search for Jesus by the Tres Marias (Three Marys). They refer to Maria Magdalena, the repentant sinner; Maria Cleofe, mother of the apostle James the Younger; and Maria Jacobe, mother of the apostles James the Greater and John.
During Holy Week, in some provinces in the northern Philippines, penitents self-flagellate while walking or carrying a wooden cross along the streets leading to the church as a way to repent for their sins. In some areas in Pampanga and Bulacan, people flock to witness men being nailed willingly to a cross as a re-enactment of Jesus’ death. Some people believe that by crucifying themselves and hurting themselves (just as Christ got hurt before), they are showing how sorry they are for their sins and are seeking forgiveness. Most recently, this practice has become a tourist attraction. The Church does not encourage this practice. Thus, Holy Week in the Philippines, with its combination of native traditions and modern-day innovations, has something of appeal for everyone.