Holy Week is not just a period to reflect on one’s faith but to also to appreciate the rituals and traditions that bring people together, and the opportunity to document rituals in analogue glory.
While the Philippines is known as the only Catholic country in Asia before Timor Leste was recognized as an independent country, Catholicism is actually only 80% of the population and is just among the many other faiths practiced in this archipelago. Other religions include non-Catholic Christianity (Protestant, Iglesia ni Cristo, Aglipayan Church, Church of God International, etc.), Buddism, Hinduism, Islam, Bahai, atheism, agnosticism, animism, and other indigenous faiths.
With Catholics being the majority, most public holidays observed in the country revolve around Christian rites and festivities. These would include All Saints’ Day on November 1, All Souls’ Day on November 2, Christmas, of course, on December 25 and the Holy Week whose dates depend on the Roman Catholic calendar.
The period from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday is the Holy Week. But, the Holy Week holiday is usually official beginning Maundy Thursday up to Easter. Being a long vacation, it is characterized by a mass exodus of people to their provinces to be with their family and relatives beginning on Holy Wednesday. Others opt to maximize the work break for a much needed rest and recreation so they go to the beaches or other resorts to spend an active or quieter summer.
Several religious practices are practiced and observed in many places all over the Philippines during the days leading to Good Friday such as the senakulo, pabasa and penitensiya.
Senakulo ( Spanish cenaculo) is the dramatization of the life, suffering and death of Jesus Christ based on the Old and New Testaments. Similar to the practice of Stations of the Cross, wherein each significant episode in the last hours of the Lord from the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane to his death on the cross is recalled and reflected upon, the senakulo is the Lenten play version where scenes are re-enacted by actors dressed in historically appropriate costumes in a procession complete with brass band and audiences.
Actors are usually devout Catholics or Aglipayans who have made the senakulo their panata (religious commitment). This religious commitment is usually handed down from one generation to the next. In most cases, actors represent generations of families that have been involved in the senakulo since time immemorial.
This ritualistic theater performance will never be complete without the characters that locals are so used to watching and look forward to see each year: Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene, Roman soldiers, etc.
While the traditional senakulo is performed in a proscenium stage complete with painted cloth or paper backdrops called telon and can last at least eight nights, the modernized version in mostly urbanized areas has become a mobile street theater performed in a procession with stops on specific locations to perform certain scenes and can last only a few hours of the day.
A traditional practice for the Holy Week in the Philippines introduced by the Spanish friars, pabasa or pasyon is literally the reading of the verses that narrate the life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ancient Filipinos integrated their traditional singing of epics into the practice. The reading now is in the form of a chant (ie., verses are sung in specific tunes, either a capella or with instrumental accompaniment). As the whole story is long, readers take turns in chanting the verses. Normally performed in a makeshift altar, the neighborhood chapel, town plaza, churchyard or at the sponsor’s home, the modern-day practice involves use of sound system so that the chanting is heard by lots of people in the community. The reading is done day and night continuously for three consecutive days. The pabasa is a definitely a form of religious meditation, expression and profession of faith as well as a communal activity that binds together members of the community in religious solidarity.
Penitensya or penance is the ritual to literally reenact the pain and suffering of Jesus Christ by inflicting wounds and pain into the bodies of the penitent. Some even go as far as being crucified. People do this to show devotion to God and gratitude for the sacrifice Christ has made for humanity, to ask forgiveness for sins committed and to ask God to grant their petitions. People use various tools such as sticks, blades and other painful tools to inflict pain and wounds. This very public and bloody display of faith elicits different reactions among spectators. Some find it too violent while others are awed with admiration for the strong faith of the penitent.
I was born in Catholic faith and grew up observing all these traditions in our community. While I may not be a very good Catholic now, my faith is not defined by religion. But with my camera, I can document these religious rites and gain fresh perspectives in strengthening my faith in God.