Holy week in the Philippines, Part 2

Holy week is a time of many processions, a form of celebration and prayer beloved by Filipinos and myself. The first is Palm Sunday, when the Lord Jesus, seated upon a donkey, is led into Jerusalem by a joyous crowd, waving palm branches, chanting hosannas and acclaiming him as “Son of David” (Matt: 21:9). I always try to imitate the Lord at this scene by riding on a horse for the procession (donkeys are extremely rare in the Philippines). However, not only do I lack his divinity, I also lack the poise of his posture, at least as depicted in illustrations. Having zero equine expertise, I sit on the wooden saddle worrying that I may tumble sideways and cause an awfully embarrassing scene. To add to my indignity, the owner of the horse takes the tether in hand and guides the animal along. Somewhat surprisingly, we always make it to the chapel without any mishaps, and thus begins holy week in the rural Philippines.

The next procession is after the Mass of the Last Supper in the evening of Holy Thursday. This is a most solemn occasion, as the priest carries the holy communion in a ciborium, together with altar servers bringing incense and candles, and a crowd, all with torches or candles. The twelve who had their feet washed earlier during the Mass walk along, festooned in their sashes, displaying the name of each apostle. We have a different twelve at each liturgy, men and women, and they wear their sashes with the utmost dignity. This is an honour for them and they take home their sash as though it were something precious. When the twelve have been chosen before each liturgy, the sashes are distributed at random, each person picking a rolled-up piece of paper with the name of an apostle on it; and there are always sighs of relief when the name allotted is not Judas! When the procession returns to the chapel, the holy communion is solemnly placed on the altar and prayers are recited. We then begin our vigil of adoration, with 30 minutes allotted to each townland, beginning with those most distant, as they have to return home in the darkness.

The procession on Good Friday is, of course, the way of the Cross. We will have had this procession each Friday during Lent, varying the route to include as many of the townlands as possible. Families are chosen who will prepare an altar outside their home and here the procession stops and prayers are said. I recall one day when we had two stations of the Cross in neighbouring villages. I slept the previous night in a rickety sacristy, near the chapel and was woken from a light sleep at 3.30am by the sonorous sound of somebody blowing into a conch shell. That truly magical, melodious air was the signal for us to gather in the chapel to start our procession at 4am. It was lovely and cool as we walked along the edges of rice fields, the starry sky overhead adding to the scene. The second procession that day, in a nearby village, was at 2pm and this time we walked with our umbrellas offering some solace from the unrelenting heat of the tropical sun.

After the Easter vigil on the night of Holy Saturday, and in many parishes early in the pre-dawn morning of Easter Sunday, there is a really lovely ceremony held in every parish in the Philippines – it is called the “Sugat”, which is simply the word for a meeting or encounter. It recounts a scene which is not recorded in any of the gospels, but which encapsulates some truly intuitive truths about what it is to be human. The scene relates how the distraught Mary, having witnessed the horrific death of her son Jesus on Good Friday, has now been informed that his burial place is empty. Having gone to the tomb and failed to find any corpse, she is now extremely distressed, not knowing what has happened to the body of her son. So she walks the streets of Jerusalem, seeking any sign of its whereabouts. She is at the absolute nadir of human suffering and maternal grief.

The Sugat then celebrates the joyful meeting of the resurrected Son and his sorrowful mother, and then of her sorrow changing into joy, as angels appear in order to replace her black mantilla of mourning with a white one of rejoicing.  It is really a charming scene, and the usually balmy Philippine weather adds to the pleasurable atmosphere. In some city parishes, little expense is spared; hoists are used to elevate the angel so as to position her above Mary in order to exchange the two veils, intricate spotlights follow the action, and so on.

I have to say that I consider such actions a tad theatrical. But my major quibble regarding the entire lovely ceremony is that it is done, apart from the live angels, using pieces of wood! Yes, both Jesus and Mary are portrayed using statues on carts. Admittedly the carts are gorgeously adorned, but still, wood is wood. Why not go for “live” when you are celebrating the emergence of new life from what had been death, plain and simple? As far as I know, every parish in the Philippines uses statues for the Sugat. I have never used them; I always go live, and it is immeasurably more memorable.

The set-up is simple. Whatever the venue (parish grounds, school yard, basketball court), two groups form, one with Jesus, accompanied by the men, the other with Mary and the women. They wait at a distance, say 50 metres apart, then at a given signal they begin to process, one group towards the other. All are carrying lighted torches because it is the dead of night. Because it is the first time for most of those present to witness the Sugat (when I am in remote mission areas), I try to make explicit the background of the tradition by “interviewing” the two principal protagonists.  I turn up like a reporter with microphone in hand, and proceed to ask a few questions (prepared earlier in the day, including a practice with the two characters).

First I ask each to identify themselves, Mary and Jesus. (I must record a funny incident. The woman playing the part of Mary was of a shy nature. When I asked her what her name was, she suddenly became very self-conscious in the presence of the neighbours and she said “I’m Irene”, and the crowd exploded with laughter. So I said, “I mean in our drama, who are you?” And this time she got the correct answer!). When next asked what she is doing wandering the streets mournfully, Mary says that her anguish at her son’s death the previous day has now been cruelly compounded by the absence of his corpse from the tomb. When asked to confirm his identity, I feign incredulity, pointing out that he is surely the one who had been killed on the previous Friday afternoon. Then I wonder if he could explain his current highly mysterious status of being alive. Jesus replies indignantly, and even a little petulantly, asking if we had, even for a moment, entertained the preposterous notion that his Father’s power could, even for the blink of an eye, be limited or curtailed?

Then mother and son ascend onto a long table placed under the balcony of a nearby house. An Easter Alleluia is sung by the choir of angels – these are boys and girls, ages ranging from four to twelve, marvelously decked out by their proud parents. The tone of the alleluia may not be pitch-perfect, but the tableau is picture-perfect: fifteen or twenty young children arrayed in white on the balcony, angelically adorned with crowns of petals and cotton-wool or cardboard wings, acclaiming the wondrous meeting of the grieving Mother and the Risen Son. One of the angels removes Mary’s black veil of mourning and replaces it with the white of joy. Then they all break into rapturous acclaim and toss their petals on the joyful Mary and the Risen Lord, and on the crowd. A truly fitting end to the mother-of-all celebrations: from the dank, dark, death-filled tomb, Jesus has been raised to eternal glory.


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