It’s Holy Week here in the Philippines, which means lots of church going and Manila is emptying out for folks to go home for the Easter Holidays.

First Things magazine discusses how Americans should view the crucifixion: not as an event to be watched, but as the result of our sins. They even quote Luther to emphasize that point.

Actually, this is a cultural interpretation that is foreign to Filipino culture (except for a few US based evangelical churches).

Sin is not a big thing here: what is important are the virtues of kindness, cooperation, and helping one’s family, extended family, and neighbors. American culture tends to equate zipper control to morality because of it’s Puritan past, but too often churches ignore the rest of the gospels:  in this President Obama has it right: What Jesus says is really important is caring for our neighbor.

Yet my years of working with the poor, and seeing the social and moral poverty which was direct result of family breakdown enabled by the sexual anarchy in the USA, one does wish the churches would put those “sins” into context: the sin is not sex per se but the destruction of  trust between lovers, and the destruction of family ties from sex outside of holy matrimony.

In contrast, as one wag put it: We Pinoys have family values: we support ALL our families (referring to the birth of children by “second wives”).

Good and evil is about caring for each other…and not just a fuzzy “caring” but the hard stuff, like choosing to work overseas to support the family back home, or raising the grandkids so mom can work in Saudi, or quitting one’s job to care for aging parents in your home.

In Filipino society, our relationship with the Creator is similarly seen as mirrored in the family.

God is our Father, Jesus is our “Kuya” (older brother, who, like the father, helps his younger siblings and is obeyed  by them) and of course, Mama Mary. Not quite correct theologically, but never mind.

One is not “born again” because that implies we are individuals who chose to love god or not to love god. But in the Philippines, one is already part of God’s family in the same way as one is part of one’s extended birth family. You can run away and reject your family, but you are still part of that family, welcome to come home any time.

And even the individualistic religion of the Evangelical explosion can be seen here not as “individuals choosing Jesus”, but as a way for those living in cities to join a new “family”, where church members help each other with money or jobs and replace the family ties broken by migrating away from the family’s village.

Yet here in the provinces, a core of tradition remains.

Here, people suffer poverty and illness, and they identify their own sufferings with the sufferings of “Kuya Jesus”, our older brother Jesus. In that way, suffering becomes a prayer, and is given a meaning. We suffer as Christ suffered, and we will be happy in heaven, for after all he rose from the dead and overcame suffering and death.

The bloody crucifixions in Pampanga are usually given lots of press in the US, but actually they are not that common outside that province, and are discouraged but not forbidden by the bishops. So why do they do it? One National Geographic show on the devotion asked a man why he did such a gruesome thing, and he said his wife was dying in childbirth, and he made a vow to perform the ritual for 12 years if she and the baby lived.

God does not require such things, of course, but it is a deep need of the heart that should not be ridiculed, especially by more sophisticated cultures that think nothing of suffering the pains of plastic surgery, eating “green” food, and going to the gym every day.

In our province, the custom during Holy Week is to sing the “pasyon”. This is a Tagalog verse version of the passion of Jesus that is sung (actually chanted) during Holy week.

We gave money for food to the women singing it in our neighborhood church, San Lorenzo chapel, but often neighbors get together and erect a small chapel (usually a canopy-tent) in the residential area streets, and the neighborhood women take turns in singing it there. We have one nearby, and hear the off-key chanting day and night…

A fancier than usual example of what these private chapels look like can be found on Angelescityandbeyondblog.
This sounds like a big expense, but actually I suspect a lot of the paraphernalia is easily rented from…funeral directors.

You see, in our town, we hold wakes in the home. The curtains and crucifixes are placed behind the casket in the family’s small living room. And outside the home, the tent-canopies are erected and chairs and tables are placed for guests to sit and visit. Wakes can go on for a week, because you have to wait for all the kids to come home from overseas before the funeral is held. And when the funeral is held, often the casket is placed in the hearse with the person’s photograph on top (and sometimes, a horse drawn hearse is used). This is followed by a local band playing dirges, and then come the family and friends, marching or traveling behind in cars or tricycles to the cemetery, where the final goodbyes are made.

As an outsider, the similarities between the Pasyon and the funeral customs are obvious.

We also have processions/parades during Holy week, where a statue of Christ carrying the cross is paraded around followed by many people belonging to various clubs and civil organizations.

And of course, just as with funerals, everyone who is able to get off of work will travel to the provinces to celebrate Holy week and then, the important part of the week: Mass, followed by traditional Easter Sunday supper/party with their extended families.

From Wikipedia:

In predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, the morning of Easter (known in the national language as “Pasko ng Muling Pagkabuhay” or the Pasch of the Resurrection) is marked with joyous celebration, the first being the dawn “Salubong”, wherein large statues of Jesus and Mary are brought together to meet, imagining the first reunion of Jesus and his mother Mary after Jesus’ Resurrection. This is followed by the joyous Easter Mass.

Yes, for Filipinos, even Jesus remembered to visit his mom on the first Easter.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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