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Easter in the Philippines

February 14, 2011

All I knew about Easter in the Philippines was what I learned about it on Western newscasts every Good Friday. Little did I know, Easter for Filipinos could be much different from what was shown on TV.

Almost every newscast on Good Friday since I could remember shows a segment on the Philippines. I would see huge throngs of Filipinos watch devotees of Christ crucify themselves in mimicry of His suffering the same day 2000 years ago. They were shown in agonizing pain, their wrists and feet pierced by long, sharp nails, arms spread over a cross.

Others were shown repeatedly beating their own backs, inflicting more and more wounds on already bloodied gashes. These Filipinos were shown engrossed in their self-flagellation as they trekked amidst the rest of the religious in the crowded Easter processions.

With these images in mind, I initially declined my various relatives’ invitations to join them for their Easter sojourns. I thought this was all Filipino Easter was about, along with hours of prayer, like when my family gathers for death anniversaries.

Indeed, this Easter, some 23 people in the villages in Pampanga participated in crucifixions to crowds totaling over 10,000, a tourism official said in a local report. But what about the millions of other Filipinos that do not go to Pampanga or participate in similar processions or rites, what do they do?

I soon realized there was a disconnect between my impressions, and how many used the extra long weekend. Friends and relatives reassured that Easter is indeed a good time. One jokingly directed me to “party like Jesus is coming back.”

For many Filipinos, Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday or the whole week with added vacation days, was a perfect occasion for a holiday, a good time for a getaway from the hustle and bustle. I looked into the invitations from my family and realized they all involved various trips to beach getaways.

In fact, Boracay has one of its peak times during Holy Week. The exclusive resort Anvaya Cove near Subic has a lottery for its members in November for their accommodations for the April weekend.

Apparently, my relatives weren’t the only Filipinos seeing Easter as an opportune time to get away.

And get away I did, with three sets of family over the course of the week, coincidently all in and around the Subic area, which is two to three hours drive north of Manila. The trips included stops at the posh Anvaya Cove resort, my Uncle’s house in a neighborhood initially built for American military, and Dungaree Beach, a small area with some 20 huts on its shores, ideal for gathering with family for shade and meals.

The week was full of good, Filipino, family fun, which included much drinking, eating, and picture taking, not unlike many Easter “fam jams” I have been to in Canada, minus the beach. All in all, the hospitality of all my hosts and their choosing to spend time with their families showed a kindness in keeping with the goodness and holiness of the occasion.

But I did not go through the whole experience of my first Balikbayan Holy Week without being shown that my initial impressions were palpable. On Good Friday, my aunt, uncle and I went to San Antonio, Zambales for a violin concert at an arts school for local youth called Casa San Miguel. We were stopped by the traffic caused by the processions of people walking alongside elaborately decorated motorcades of the Stations of the Cross.

This is when I saw for the first time in real life people flogging their backs as they walked the streets. The sight of the young men beating themselves as they trekked around town, backs completely crimson from blood, is seared in my mind, despite my refusing to take a picture of them.

But there was a disconnect still from the news depictions and what I witnessed that day. My impressions of the young men I saw on Good Friday, the only people I saw participating in self-flagellation, was quite different from the pious performing extreme acts of penance that are usually interviewed.

One young man had a pair of aviator sunglasses on, another, a loose fitting black t-shirt with a large rectangular cutout on the back exposing his bloodied skin. Their gait was what I can only describe as ‘gangsta’ walks, limping slightly either from the pain, or their ‘toughness’ at enduring it. Seemingly, the self-beatings were done to show that these young men could take the pain, not necessarily as a statement of faith. Most disturbingly, a group of boys trailed behind them in full view of the repeated strikes on their already bloodied backs, as if they were examples to follow.

Church officials have denounced self-flagellations and crucifixions, but no blanket statement from the Vatican has been made.

The gaudiness of these expressions of faith, were in sharp contrast from the ethereal beauty I experienced at the arts school. They hold the concert every Good Friday to feature their budding, local talent as they perform Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ,” musical meditations of Jesus’ final statements.

Violins touch my soul and it was amazing to hear the heavenly sounds of the string instruments played live to my appreciative ears on one of the holiest of Christian days. A teacher and his young students, Filipinos all, skillfully played pieces composed many years ago as I thought, the ability of humans to produce beauty that tugs at every emotion is the perfect way for me to experience Good Friday. Beyond words, time, and cultures, just pure expression, a reminder of God’s love and Jesus’ accepted, but not self-inflicted sacrifice.

Thus I resolved that listening to this unique set of musical compositions would be a Filipino tradition I will bring with me as part of my future Holy Week experiences, while I let the fond memories of this time cloud over my disturbing, initial impressions of Easter in the Philippines.


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Monday, February 14, 2011 About Easter in Clark Philippines




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