What follows is part eight of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid. (MK) I hope readers will enjoy this series. Please leave Josh your comments in the comment section.
Part 8: Easter in the Philippines
Imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment.
Imagine you are a man in his thirties.
Now picture yourself outside, the hot afternoon sun beating down on you. You are walking through a dusty street while a crowd watches on.
The walk is difficult. You are encumbered by a heavy wooden object you need to carry. It is called a cross.
You feel exhausted and dehydrated but, as you near your destination, you know the worst is still to come.
When you reach the designated place the cross is taken from you and placed on the ground. Obediently you lie on top as rope is wound around your arms securing you to the cross-beam.
Then come the nails.
Quickly, indeed efficiently, they are driven through your hands and feet into the wood you rest on. You wince, maybe even cry out, but you already knew what to expect. You had known this was coming for a while now.
The cross is raised upright with you fastened to it. Perhaps you might be getting used to pain.
You look skyward knowing that this will end. It will be finished. You just need to endure a little longer.
From your lofty position you survey the crowd and notice there are more people than last year. A few of them appear to be foreigners. Perhaps they are tourists – but you aren’t sure. All you know is that now you must wait for before you are let back down off the cross.
And once you are down you know it will another year before you have to endure this again. Another year until next Easter.
Okay you can stop imagining. Feeling alright? Good. Hopefully that “exercise” wasn’t too horrible and, for the record, I was trying to make it jarring – not grotesque. If I achieved that then great but, if not, blame my writing.
Because this is Easter time I thought I would talk a bit about how Easter is celebrated in the Philippines. And before anyone asks, yes, that description above does portray something very real that goes on there. But I will get to back to that later.
In a lot of places Easter is a big deal. In New Zealand it marks a long weekend where both Good Friday and the next Monday are public holidays. We celebrate by taking a short vacation and eating a few specific foods. On Good Friday it is traditional to eat hot-cross buns and on Easter Sunday chocolate eggs and rabbits are consumed – mostly by children. That is how we do things in NZ. If you are not Christian, and most of the country isn’t, it is low-key holiday.
In the Philippines it is a big deal too. But more so. And it is very religious.
Remember how around 90% of the population are Roman Catholic? Well this has a big impact on their Easter celebrations.
The Holy week begins on Palm Sunday and then, on Maundy Thursday (for those not familiar with the nomenclature it is the day before Good Friday) most of the business close down through Black Saturday until Resurrection Sunday – when the whole country celebrates Jesus rising from the dead. Those of you familiar with Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity may not know the names for all those days but, believe me, the Catholics do. They also know how to exhibit devotion.
By that I mean: they know how to put it on. This goes beyond mass every day and special homilies. I am talking about pilgrimages, processions and penance (yes, I realise there are three “p”s – that was actually on accident).
The pilgrimages are exactly what they sound like. During holy week people will make their way to sacred shrines or large cathedrals in their area. My family lived near a one of these Cathedrals in an area called Cainta. Every year thousands of people would flood the main highway on route to the Cathedral. The highway would get so crowded that you couldn’t actually drive on it – not that there was anywhere you could go during this time.
Most of the pilgrims would simply walk, often praying and clutching rosary beads, but there were always a few who didn’t make things so easy on themselves (as if walking a long distance is “easy”). Whether it was for penance or to show devotion there were those who elected to go barefoot, crawl on hands and knees, or simply walk while whipping their bare-backs.
Students of church history will note that there is a long tradition of these sorts of displays dating back to the middle ages. To see it in the modern world can be quite startling.
As intriguing as the pilgrimages are to watch they are quite mundane compared to the Easter Processions. Throughout the holy week large Easter parades are organized through the main streets of cities, towns and even small villages. Different Dioceses and Archdioceses have them on different days so if you timed it right you could travel through the country and see a local procession each day.
These are not small-scale either. Hundreds of people will march in the procession wearing coordinated costumes or driving elaborate floats. These aren’t for commercial or entertainment – these parades are purely religious. Candles, crucifixes, statues and icons are all on full display. While a lot of the objects are supplied by the local church there will also be private items that local politicians and wealthy families will bring from their personal collections. The statues can range from the small Barbie-doll sized figures to human sized carvings of Jesus, Mary and revered saints.
The size, amount and lavish design of the items in a procession are often a way of gauging the relative wealth a small town possesses. Are there only a handful of smaller statues and a banner or two? Probably a poorer area. On the other had are their numerous statues with the main Jesus statue being life-sized, carved out of ebony , seated on a gold-plated throne and inside an ornate box with panes of glass on all four sides? That’s probably a wealthy area indeed.
Finally the penance. Easter is a great time to get one’s soul in order and there are a wide array of options for the penitent. I have already mentioned the pilgrims whipping themselves or crawling for miles but if those don’t interest you – I can supply other some others. Try a large donation to the church – either cash or the commissioning of a new statue. If that is too expensive (which means you are poor) then you could forego a particular pleasure for the next year or maybe undergo a public act of contrition. If you want to really show your commitment though; there is always the crucifixion option.
And here we are back to the beginning.
Yes indeed. You can – if you are really super-duper penitent (or just want to shave some years off your time in purgatory) – get crucified for a while. I have seen a couple of people have this done to them and, I will be honest, it is quite freaky. This isn’t something that just faded into the darker recesses of my memory. Seeing someone carrying a cross, being whipped (in fairness – not scourged), and then actually being nailed to a cross for an hour or so is something that stays with a person – especially when viewed as a teenager.
Crucifixion, while rare, is something that is done around Easter in some areas of the Philippines (including mine). Often it is a form of repentance from sins but there are other reasons too. Some of them are very devout and consider it to be following in Jesus footsteps. They are true bible literalists after all didn’t Jesus say “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27 NIV)? Then there are those that do it out of obligation. Think of this scenario; a father finds that their child is dying and they can’t afford to get the medicine necessary to save them (the Philippines is a capitalist paradise after all). He prays day and night promising God that if his child recovers he will be crucified every Easter for the next five years (for example). His child pulls through and so this man, in turn, fulfills his promise.
Obviously in none of these cases is the crucifixion supposed to kill the participant. This is purely an outward sign of an inward truth (I suppose in the same way baptism isn’t literally killing and resurrecting the participant). As strange as it may sound to those with different Christian traditions this isn’t just made up whole-cloth – it does have a biblical basis (arguments about interpretation aside).
So why talk about that? Well, first of all, it’s something most westerners (which is the demographic of the readers here) probably won’t know about these other ways of celebrating Easter. Hopefully those of you in that camp found it interesting. The other point I want to make is this: the way NZ (and most of the west) celebrate Easter is actually more, not less, secular than the Filipino Roman Catholics. Almost everything done in Filipino Easter Celebrations is part of their devotion to the Christian gospel story.
Protestant and evangelicals will dismiss these practices as “works-based” but that is not a fair picture. If you asked the average pilgrim, penitent or procession member they would all say their actions are reflect a deeper reality, their statues are symbols and their pain (if they go for that side of things) is to glorify God. Those willing to be crucified are extreme examples, to be sure, but even they have a scriptural basis for the practice.
So next time a pampered, prosperous Christian appears on TV bemoaning the creeping secularization of the holiday – ask yourself how committed they really are to making Easter more religious. Would they walk for miles to show their devotion? Would they crawl? Would they get whipped let alone crucified?
I doubt it. I doubt they would want to change anything that would make them less comfortable. They may claim unending devotion to God but only if it means their traditions being upheld. Realize that there are other, more hard-core, ways of celebrating Easter that the Christian culture warrior wouldn’t have the courage to touch.
Perhaps that is overly harsh on my part but I have to admit that I have seen the true face of devotion and it wasn’t standing behind a pulpit.
Anyway if you want to know more I am sure there are articles online. And on that note – have a great Easter.