We were conducting a mission in a sprawling urban down-market place called Mambaling, part of Cebu city. Most of the folks there are poor, some living in miserable conditions; a few families are doing nicely, but this is often the product of the drug trade. With my two lay companions we visited every house over the period of a few weeks, and organized various community activities. We were still there for holy week; it was an unusual sequence of events.
We began with a slight hitch on Palm Sunday. Mutual mistaken presumptions on the part of my companions and myself meant that, having blessed the palms, I was transport-less as we prepared to process to the chapel. The plan was that either a horse, a tartanilla (horse & cart, still popular in downtown Cebu) or tricykad (pushbike with a sidecar) would carry the Lord on his triumphal procession. In the event I was left standing.
I spotted a contemporary Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21), not coming in from the fields, but beginning his days pedaling. His tricykad was empty. I hailed this providential godsend and he was agreeable. I stood on the edge of the tricykad, but alas there were no palm-waving, garment-shedding crowds lining the road, waiting to be sprinkled, as was planned. I thought for one blank moment that the stones might cry out (Luke 19:40). Thus began holy week in Mambaling.
During the many-voiced reading of the passion, I tried to facilitate some participation for the congregation, by suggesting certain gestures and postures which would somehow ‘locate’ us in the drama. At the mention of “pray not to be put to the test”, for example, all stood, joined hands and prayed in silence. For Peter’s denial, we covered our mouths with our hands to signal the importance, sometimes tragic, of our words; and in common sorrow with him we beat our breasts. At the mention of “the reign of darkness” (Luke 22:53), we covered our eyes, and to show that we too can be like Pilate, we washed our hands in basins of water.
Holy week in churches in the Philippines (somewhat unlike Ireland, I suppose) usually means huge crowds, people arriving early to ensure a seat, or bringing their own chairs; not in Mambaling. Through a subtle combination of astute strategic planning and shrewd attention to local custom, we not only anticipated this challenge, but satisfactorily met it. In fact, there was ample room for anyone and everyone at any time during all the ceremonies; and room to spare!
Holy Thursday was the first time I witnessed the twelve apostles, after having had their own feet washed by me, washing the feet of twelve volunteers. A simple act in itself, I found the second washing quite powerful. The four districts of Mambaling each supplied 12 apostles for a particular ceremony, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil on Saturday night. Glenn would have been a probable candidate for ‘apostle’ on Thursday, were it not for the fact that he was lying six feet underground since mid-March. He was one of the youth (21 years of age) who responded to the promptings of my lay worker companions on the team. Like many of the youth in the area he took drugs, and was also a runner. Even so, he took part in the youth gatherings and on the Friday before his pointless death he had participated in the Stations of the cross, as the procession wound its way along the rutted roads and pathways of the area.
On a Sunday in March he went to the beach. O fateful journey! He was traveling with people somewhat lacking in the more elementary human sensibilities. Among his companions was a woman whose husband had been stabbed to death sometime earlier, and who had moved in with the chief suspect within a crudely short time after the murder. The suspect had already served time for killing. On this horrific day, according to the reports, the suspect had been fore-warned that there were people following their jeep, and he was their target. The callous criminal gave gullible Glenn his cap and asked him to wear it. The dumb death-dealers aimed for the cap. Glenn fell lifeless. The amateur assassins fled.
On Good Friday our Way of the Cross led from the mission area to the parish church (the mission was only in one pocket of Mambaling), and we joined the other parishioners and the parish priest for the ceremonies.
We gathered on Holy Saturday to celebrate new life. We began with a dance around the paschal fire, inspired, as far as I could see, in equal proportions by tribal costumes & props and Elvis-style twirlings. All for the good Lord’s glory! I had asked the dance instructor to teach us a few simple steps for the procession. He did his best, we did our best. It was a motley gathering of the bandy-legged, arthritic, athletic, young-at-heart, young-in-limb that wound its way along the potholed roads of Mambaling.
During the reading of the creation story (Genesis chapter 1), five ‘life-signs’ were presented in succession: a spotlight was switched on (“let there be light”); a basket of fruit was brought forward, (“let the earth bring forth vegetation”); fish in an aquarium (“let the waters teem with living creatures”); birds in a cage (“let birds fly above the earth”); a baby, carried by its parents (“let us make humans in our image and likeness”). Like Palm Sunday, visual or active rather than simply aural. As each gift was presented we responded with the phrase: we worship you, God of life; we value all you created.
After the Exodus narrative of escape from slavery, I wondered aloud if slavery was still a part of our modern, sophisticated world. Were there any slaves present tonight, I asked. Unsurprisingly, for we had practiced earlier in the day, one after another, three people raised their hands: they represented enslavement in the darkness of poverty, the aridity of addiction, the attractive but finally unsatisfying allure of riches. I interviewed each one, asking what were the effects of the slavery, what they hoped for. I asked whether this hope might be attainable – not a foregone conclusion. After all, the Hebrews’ newfound freedom was as much threatened by their own grumbling and back-sliding as by Egyptian soldiers.
As the vigil progressed, I heard singing coming from somewhere nearby. I was confused, as I was fairly sure there was no sect or denomination with a meeting-place in the vicinity. It later became apparent. While we were celebrating the mother of all vigils, the high point of our Christian year, the unexpected divine interruption into our dark world of unquenchable light, a Catholic covenant community, (a renewal group for married couples), all from the mission area, were having a prayer service for a recently deceased member, thirty meters away. Thank God for variety!