The pain and colours of Holy Week in the Philippines

Up to this day, Philippines has remained loyal the the Vatican, being the last remaining Catholic nation in Southeast Asia.This is why during the Lenten month, the country becomes a prime destination for religious festivities.

Each province, except for few Muslim areas in Mindanao, have their own way of celebrating the Holy Week, which starts from Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday. This is meant to commemorate the sorrows and sufferings of Jesus Christ, from his condemnation to his arrest and his crucifixion until he was nailed and pierced to death and when he rose from the dead.

The Holy Week is also the longest paid vacation in the Philippine working calendar so almost everybody anticipates this. The younger crowd takes advantage of the free days to relax and bond with friends or families, usually on the beach. Others go abroad. But the older, more religious group and some young people stay home fasting, reflecting on their sins – as how it should be – or go to Church visits called Visita Iglesia.

The modern times have changed the traditional rituals so much that sometimes solemnity is replaced by funfair and exaggeration to attract foreign and local tourists.

Two provinces in the Philippines are very popular during the Lenten Season because of their unique rendition of the suffering of Jesus Christ. Tourists flock to these provinces in thousands to witness the celebrations, more with curiosity than with the spirit of the repentance.

Moriones Festival in Marinduque

This tiny island in Southern Tagalog is oftentimes called the heart of the Philippines because it is located in the center of the country. The heart-shaped island is home to a mere 217,000 residents and is made up of only six towns. It is made famous for its mystical Elephant Island (now home to the more popular Bellaroca Hotel and Resort) and its three islets called Melchor, Gaspar and Baltazar.

Marinduque is a very rural province, laid back for most part of the year except during the Holy Week. Its people takes pride in having the most colorful celebration of the Lenten and welcomes a big number of tourists who travel here for the Moriones Festival.

The week-long festivity includes parade of the Morions, Senakulo, Pabasa ng Pasyon in every municipality, flagellants, fairs , night bazaars, and these days, even nightly concerts.

The celebration starts on Palm Sundays when Marinduquenos head to the historical Boac Cathedral carrying young coconut leaves to have it blessed by the priest or the bishop. They would keep these throughout the year, placed beside religious figures on the family altar.

As early as Monday, the Moriones or Roman soldiers will be littering the streets of Boac and Mogpog, delighting the spectators and scaring little children. Most of them are commissioned by the municipal halls and get incentives for participating.

The Moriones costume and the masks are made of materials like capiz, hard wood, metal and cloth, sewn, carved and stitch together laboriously by local craftsmen. Most of these costumes has been with its owners for decades and taken care like precious jewelry. An original mask costs around P3000 (around $65) or more because of the quality, materials and longevity. Morion is a Latin word which means mask or helmet

The Senakulo is a nightly theater play re-enacting stories from the Bible, from Genesis until the ascent of Jesus Christ to heaven. It starts on Wednesday and is being held in the ampitheater in the dried part of the Boac River. This continues until Black Saturday and promptly begins at 7 in the evening.

However, the highlight of the play is when Longhinus, the leader of the Roman soldiers is beheaded by his pears the Black Saturday because of his faith to Jesus Christ. Longhinus is the most famous Morion with the most beautiful costume. His mask has one blind eye. Unlike in some province, the crucifixion in Marinduque is not gruesome because the actor who plays Jesus Christ is only tied to the cross. The celebration is more of an honour to Longhinus.

Story goes that when Longhinus pierced the sife of Jesus Christ to ensure that he is truly dead, his blood flows to his blind eye making him see again. At first he despised the miracle but when he and his fellow guards saw Jesus Christ leaving his tomb, he proclaimed to Jerusalem the greatness of God. Pontius Pilate, the reigning ruler of Jerusalem at that time did not like this and ordered for his beheading.

The beheading of Longhinus is also the end of the play and it signals the departure of the tourist. In the afternoon of Easter Sunday, my province retreats to its usual quietness and continues to be another Filipino countryside until the next Holy Week.

Pain and Sufferings in Pampanga

The province of Pampanga in the North, aside from being the culinary capital of the Philippines is also famous for its yearly crucifixion rituals. Here they use long nails to fasten the hands and feet of the participants on the cross.

The celebration in San Pedro Cutud gives a more painful meaning to penitence. Flagellants believe that hurting themselves is a way of cleansing themselves of sins. Others do it as a pledge for safety and blessings for their families.

Last year, along with some Dutch friends, I went to see the crucifixion in Cutud, San Fernando Pampanga. We rented a cab all the way from the capital Manila and braved the 3 hour ride under 38 degrees heat.

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We arrived at San Pedro Cutud, a quarter before 1pm of Good Friday while the sun is at its hottest and all of us are sweltering under its might. We were able to catch the procession passing Via Cruses on the way to “Golgotha” the designated places where the actual crucifixion takes place.

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Following the man playing Jesus Christ were prayer brigades and flagellants whipping their bloody backs with bamboo whips. We did not stay very close to them to avoid getting splattered with blood. But the gore was just too much for my European friends so we continued ahead of the procession to find the place of the crucifixion.

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On a nearby barangay (village), there were already some crucifixions going on obviously a show for tourists. At least 10 penitents were lined up on a small hill, each waiting for their turn to be hammered on the cross. They would hang there for about 3 minutes, suffering the excruciating pain until photographers have taken a good shot of them. They they would run to the nearby tent where medical volunteers treat their wounds with alcohol and betadine.

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The main crucifixion site is in Golgotha and by the time we arrived, the
large stage was already set for the ritual. There was a special cordoned area for photographers and cameramen from both foreign and local media.

Ironically it was a vision of a fiesta, a merrier Catholic tradition that takes place in the summer. Thousands of spectators were already gathered around the stage while those who cannot stand the heat searched for place of refuge, usually under the trees in somebody’s garden. Stalls selling hats, umbrellas and different kind of drinks were raking in a lot of money from tourists who were burning under the scorching heat of the sun.

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The program started late and when somebody finally spoke on the microphone, a collective sigh of relief could be heard from the crowd.
The novena (prayers) started and every once in a while, the organizer would plead the crowd to be quiet or cautioned them not to get too close to the stage. From a distance, the voice of an old man could be heard, chanting about a different kind of religion. It was far from being solemn.

When Jesus Christ was crucified in Calvary, there were two thieves beside him. The thief from his right repented while the one on the left mocked him. However in San Pedro Cutud 18 people pledged to be nailed to the cross as thieves and Christs. As the nail dug deep into their hands, tearing their flesh and skin, the crowd would cry in anguish and disbelief. Some penitents did not show any emotion but others shouted in pain and beg to be brought down from the cross immediately.

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Me and my friends did not wait until the last person was crucified. It was too much to bear – the pageantry and raw gore.

While passing more flagellants on the way back to Manila I can’t help but be saddened that this once sacred rituals had become sort of a circus. I am sure that most, if not all penitents, are still doing these for personal convictions and religious beliefs but for others it is a way to earn money.

The men who are nailed to the cross and the Moriones were being paid by the municipal government to be part of these events. That is not entirely wrong especially that a lot of them were poor. But you will always wonder, what about true repentance?