Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Holy Week: How Filipino Catholics Perceive It

It's as old as history, and distinctly Filipino culture at that - to deprive oneself of few good things on Holy Week especially on Good Friday. Filipino Catholics and others who identify themselves as Christians - invariably love pork and red meat in their menus - except on Holy Week - when a rather spontaneous boycott of meat, pork and chicken, as a matter of religious tradition - becomes their own "calvary". Fish suddenly becomes the national staple - to the joys of fishmongers who get their customers on their knees for an unholy prices. In my childhood, you get chided if you dared wearing colorful or eccentric outfits for "not respecting the occasion",  as it has to be sober and downcast.

Filipino Catholics are some of the most religious people in the world - for a reason. Catholic tradition dictates that eating meat, pork or even chicken on Holy Thursday and Good Friday is forbidden as a way of remembering Christ's passion and death, and as a form of penance. To some, they do it symbolically as a way of mourning for a dead Christ. But amid the pervasive air of religiosity, there will always be some individuals who are insensible to tradition and have a different interpretation of it - they believe that God is dead and cannot do anything so they take advantage of it by engaging in ungodly activities such as gambling, drinking alcohol and cockfighting. The temerity to even entertain the thoughts of such is as downright foolish as it gets.

The degree of understanding and perception of the concept of Holy Week varies from people doing their own thing to 'mitigate' their sinfulness, to the utter contrast of convincing themselves that God is dead on Good Friday till Sunday morning thus they could get away with their immoral acts - is beyond astonishing - and proof of an astoundingly distorted concept of Holy Week - as per tradition.

During the Holy Week when government decrees a week-long holiday, an exodus of big-city workers in their tens of thousands to their provinces - becomes a major concern because of the chaos it causes. While most of them are eager to bond with their families on this week-long vacation, another big number comprises of local tourists who are heading out for beaches and excursion away from the hustle and bustle of fast-paced Metropolitan Manila. Seaports, airports and bus terminals are extremely crowded that the ubiquitous police force needed to maintain security and order. Various outposts sometimes are temporarily turned into nurseries for wailing children who got separated from their parents amid the chaos - and that's just one side of the multi-faceted Holy Week celebration Filipino-style.

The extent of being deeply religious yet worthless

On another, the so-called "deeply religious" do a pilgrimage to famous shrines - where there were alleged apparitions of some sort, and say their prayers with matching act of penance for their past sins - such as clambering up and down the grotto of the Virgin Mary on barefoot - till their blisters render them immobile believing that they've done enough to obtain 'forgiveness'. And a significant number of the devout would also go for pilgrimage to certain mountains on barefoot and offer their prayers for good health and a better life. Catholic churches renowned for "Marian apparition" in the past are also perfect choices for pilgrims who come from far places to perform rituals such as kneel-walking to and from the altar till they bleed and go home heavily-bandaged. Some would even go the extra mile by volunteering themselves to be literally crucified so that they "share Christ's sufferings". And some of these Christ-wannabes do it every single year as lifetime vow. Although the Catholic clergy does not encourage its devout members to go the extremes, it also refuses to reprehend or warn them that such extreme activity is not required as a matter of biblical principle.

Surely every Filipino 'Christian' feels the need to reflect on the sufferings of Christ on Holy Week. A week wallowing in sorrow and remorse for the past sins - perhaps is not that long if only to feel the pain of Christ. Speaking of pain, in some places north of the country, certain localities commemorate the sufferings of Christ in a rather extreme show of devotion to the crucified Christ. Able-bodied men, some are in their teens, fill columns of devotees who flagellate themselves while doing a procession. Of course the gory act proves to be a perennial hit for tourists and even get coverage from international media. Though the commonality of these rituals no longer surprises the world, still devout Filipino Catholics have always something to offer several notches more shocking that the rest of the Catholic world would dare not duplicate: the actual crucifixion of hardcore devotees who either have wishes for miracles to happen in their lives or it's their own way of fulfilling their vows for their wishes that were granted. (Please note that actual crucifixion lasts only for ten minutes and the medics-on-standby see to it that they beat tetanus for next year's spectacle.) If anything, the spectacle it creates can only bring about good things, two at best - one, their crucifixion "clears their sin", and two, it draws more local and international tourists that will boost local economy.

Social media as platform for one's religiosity

Social media for one is the most conspicuous platform whereby it mirrors other people's perception of the occasion. Others may still settle for the mundane, like ditching their profile pics for a cross or a bleeding Jesus image - and yell on their Facebook, "I'm a proud Christian!" Other than that you fail to see the coherence in their sudden shift of sentiments from their usual posts that most likely reflect how they conduct their lives. One popular actor even gained thousands of likes on IG for shouting out "let's be good even for this week alone, and hopefully till forever!" And how is making a vow "to be good on New Year's eve and hopefully throughout the entire new year" any different?

As a "matter of decency and being one with the Christian world", various media and showbiz personalities have spontaneously stopped flooding their IG accounts with photos of gourmet meals from high-end restaurants - instead they loaded them with photos of their families sharing a rather wretched meal mostly identifiable with the poor, such as sauteed salted shrimp paste (bagoong) paired with eggplants; or dried fish dunked in vinegar paired with rice - to show their oneness with the sufferings of Christ, and perhaps to meet the standard of what their religion and society demand to be the norm - during the week-long celebration. In this case, famous celebrities who have thousands if not millions of followers on social media can also influence ordinary people's perception of what Holy Week signifies to them.

Another young female celebrity posted a very 'positive' message on her IG account that goes "Christ, even when he was hanging on the cross thought of only what's best for us, so that when we are happy, he is also happy. He already did it on the cross, he suffered so that we can be redeemed and be happy, so let us spread happiness to all (sic)". This caption preceded her photos with her boyfriend while they are vacationing in Thailand and sharing a hotel room. I agree, Jesus wants us to be happy -  He thought of us sinners when He was hanging on the cross. By us being happy, Jesus meant that we should live our lives in righteousness, holiness and obedience to Him and not to engage in fornication, adultery, gambling, drinking and all other sorts of ungodliness. Yes, people feel happy when they fornicate or commit adultery, but this 'happiness' is of the devil.

Simplicity of scriptures yet complicated to many

It is unfortunate that over two thousand years ago into the actual death and resurrection of Christ, hundreds of millions of so-called Christians still have very little knowledge if not completely lack understanding of the depths of what they are celebrating. Most of them see only the events surrounding Christ's death, burial, resurrection and ascension through a historical perspective that need to be commemorated as a matter of tradition. In fact, the sad reality is - they do not know the power of Jesus's death and resurrection to those who believe. They subject themselves to some sort of 'penance' and self-affliction without really understanding that it is never required of them in order to obtain salvation.

Despite the simplicity of scriptures, people are not able to comprehend it because they are blinded by tradition - and because of tradition people refuse to seek knowledge. The apostle Paul was spot on when he said of these people as "ever learning but never able to come to the knowledge of truth" (1 Timothy 3:7)

Core message of the Holy Week

The core message of the Holy Week is actually very simple: God himself took the form of a man, walked among us, had suffered and died a horrendous death for us, because sin has separated us from the Holy God, and He has made himself to be that bridge so that we can be re-connected to the holy and righteous God. The simplicity of God's divine plan for man's salvation is not supposed to be this complicated. God gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus said "I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me." Jesus finished it all on the cross! We do not need to hang on the cross ourselves and emulate Christ as if what He did was not enough. Jesus hanged there from nine in the morning to three past midday - that's six hours of indescribable agony, not ten minutes. Man's salvation has been served up to us on a silver platter - we only need to accept it. By acceptance, it means that we should repent from our sins, turn back from it and turning to God completely. And by turning to God completely - it means that we ought to live a life of holiness, obedience, humility and contentment - while we await that Blessed Day when that same Jesus, the Son of God who came in the flesh - will appear for the second time - not as a lowly servant of men, but as a powerful and just God who will administer true justice on earth.

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