Growing up, the most different week off from school was “Holy Week,” which started on Palm Sunday and ended on Easter Sunday. Back in the early 80s, the nation starts shutting down as early as Palm Sunday, as some businesses close and people prepare for a trip to their rural homes. By Maundy Thursday most people in Manila with roots in “the provinces” (sa probinsya), or more accurately, in rural areas, have made their pilgrimages and are usually spending the hot summer days leading up to Easter in quiet observation of these religious holidays.
Not that anyone is really spending the weekend in grave mortification. There are ways around the sheer boredom and proscriptions against conducting business. In Pampanga, where I came from, kids played in street. Deprived of regular television viewing except for religious-oriented films such as The Ten Commandments, we had to get creative with what we did. Video games in my household were forbidden during this time. When I was tired, I would read.
I would go to the makeshift chapels where they would read the Pasyon (an extended narrative poem about the life and times of Jesus Christ). These were centers for activity. The prayerful would spend most of the time there. Outside, children would frolic while their parents prayed and gossiped. Penitents—anonymous in their faces covered with cloth and dragging large wooden crosses the way Christ has been depicted—would visit a chapel for a small drink of water and a ceremonial whipping at its floor, in front of the altar. Equally anonymous flagellants—their backs intentionally and shallowly wounded for the visual effect of blood that the cat o’ nine tails can’t draw—would walk the streets. As a youngster I never understood why these people would silently re-enact the suffering of Christ, some, all the way to a crucifixion—modified for non-lethal effect—on Good Friday. The practice bewilders non-Filipinos, and every now and then I have to explain, without myself being a participant, why it’s done.
While gory theatre they may be, it is still theatre. The Good Friday crucifixions performed in Pampanga are mere shadows of the real Roman crucifixions. But why subject oneself to even the shadow of that pain? Why would a woman go through this fourteen times, despite the objections of the diocese? The priesthood discourages the practice but really cannot forbid it, because these penitents are doing something that so many religions teach in one form or another: rejection of the Flesh, ahorrence of pleasure—suffering, pain, discomfort and sacrifice—which lead to an altered state of consciousness. Starvation led the prophets of old to great insight. Psychoactive drugs were used by others to see into a truth obscured by daily living. The penitents who have themselves crucified suffer as a matter of choice because—at least for the truly penitent—they feel the weight of their sins on their consciences. This clarity, this insight earned through pain and suffering, can be so stark that it leads people to want more. It’s just like a drug. It starts with bearing that cross that first time. Then it just escalates.
Alas, growing up, the practice has changed a little. It used to be that the crucified penitents were shrouded as they stayed up there. Now, it looks like their faces are out for people to see. There’s an element of theatre and recognition that mars the solemnity and casts doubts of the sincerity of such an act.
What does ritual mortification have to do with modern, American life? I grew up in a slightly more comfortable environment than my two siblings, who were born ten and nine years before me. I never knew true hunger, never knew true suffering. My mother saw to that. Personal difficulties are not worth nothing, even if compared against the hardships of others. It is when we are faced with the gravest of problems that we are challenged to be at our best. We may not bear wooden crosses, but we have challenges ahead of us.
Here in the States, Good Friday is yet another workday for so many in the private sector. Easter has become a secular holiday—well, what else is new—emblemized by a mythical rabbit, colored eggs and plenty of candy. Just like Christmas, the religious background goes backstage. This is America, right? But honestly, I’m not really mourning the way Americans celebrate Easter, for as long as it’s a holiday well-spent and not wasted, to be with family and friends. I really can’t say you guys are missing the point, but boy are you guys missing out.