A Look at Holy Week in the Philippines

March 29 – April 5, 2015: For the Roman Catholic majority in the Philippines, Holy Week is one of the most important religious observances. It marks the sombre crucifixion and burial of Jesus on Good Friday and culminates in the joyful celebration of his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

For Filipino Catholics, it all starts forty days earlier on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season. That’s when you see people wandering around town with ashes rubbed onto their foreheads in the sign of a cross. Lent is a time of spiritual discipline, such as self-denial, moderation, fasting and the forsaking of sinful activities and habits.

Not being all that familiar with Catholic traditions, and the unique characteristics of Holy Week here in the Philippines, I decided to do a little bit more digging. We missed out on Easter last year, spending it in Burma, a Theravada Buddhist country. The year before that, we were diving in Puerto Galera with friends. So this was, in effect, my first Holy Week experience in the Philippines. Apologies to all my Filipino friends, if I’ve misrepresented anything here. (I filled in the gaps with information from Wikipedia.)

Palm Sunday, March 29

Historical: Jesus rode into Jerusalem and people placed palm leaves on the ground in front of him.

Philippines Tradition: Worshippers bring palm leaves to the church to be blessed by the priest.

Holy Wednesday, April 1

Subic Events 2015: A passion play is performed at Harbour Point mall for the enjoyment of shoppers. No joke.

Maundy Thursday, April 2

Historical: Jesus presides over the Last Supper with the disciples (Passover meal) and washes their feet.

Subic Events 2015: The Mass of the Lord’s Supper and Washing of the Feet at the San Roque Chapel and a re-enactment of the Last Supper.

Good Friday, April 3

Historical: Jesus is arrested at the Garden of Gethsemane, tried, persecuted and then forced to carry his own cross, on which he is crucified.

Philippines Tradition: Good Friday is commemorated with solemn street processions, the Way of the Cross, the commemoration of Jesus’ Seven Last Words (Siete Palabras) and a Passion Play called the Sinakulo. In some communities, notably San Fernando in Pampanga province, the procession includes devotees who self-flagellate and sometimes even have themselves nailed to crosses.

You can read about Pampanga’s crucifixion re-enactment complete with photos here. Four thousand people turned out this year, including some who willingly carried wooden crosses, crawled on rough pavement and were nailed to crosses as a way to ask forgiveness for sins, to fulfil a vow, or to give thanks to God. I’m not sure if that’s something I’d want to see in person or not.

Subic Events 2015: The Good Friday Grand Procession from the San Roque Chapel, followed a concert at the Boardwalk Area.

I joined in the procession together with Captain Brian and Sandra and Cynthia, crew of the Seattle-based yacht, Furthur. Devotees joined in the procession as lighted carriages carrying near life-size dioramas depicting scenes from the last days of the life of Jesus and various saints were pulled by hand around Subic’s central business district after sunset. It was a sombre procession until the end, when all of the beautiful flowers on the carriages were grabbed unceremoniously by those closest at hand.

Black Saturday, April 4

Historical: Jesus lies in the tomb.

Philippines Tradition: Called Holy Saturday in most places, it’s officially known as Black Saturday in the Philippines, given the colour’s role in mourning. It involves a lot of waiting, praying and fasting. The celebration of Easter begins after sundown.

Subic Events 2015: There’s a party on the Boardwalk in the evening.

My Filipino family invites me to join them for lunch at our cousin’s house. Thanks to my ate (big sister) Merlyn for including me, and to Bless for welcoming me into her home. The food was great, especially the dinengdeng.

Easter Sunday

Historical: First reported appearance of Jesus alive after his crucifixion.

Philippines Tradition: Easter morning is marked with joyous celebration, the first being the pre-dawn Salubong (meeting), where two separate processions involving large statues of Jesus and Mary are brought together, imagining the first reunion of Jesus and his mother after the resurrection. This is followed by the joyous Easter Mass.

Subic Events 2015: Activities start before dawn with the Lenten rites Salubong: Risen Christ, followed by mass at the San Roque Chapel. There’s also a community breakfast and an Easter egg hunt.

I enjoyed another day with my extended Filipino family at Baloy Beach (Long Beach), where we spent the time eating, visiting, swimming and playing games on the beach. I may have a small family in Canada, but I have a huge one in the Philippines and I keep meeting more and more of them.

That evening, I joined the captain and crew on Furthur for a German-style Easter feast of roast pork, roasted vegetables, knoedel (dumplings), gravy and carrot muffins for dessert. A joyous day indeed.

Additional photos courtesy of Merlyn (and the rest of my Filipino family) and Danette. Thank you!

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