Events to see this Holy Week

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Monday, April 7, 2014


ALL roads will once again lead to Cutud, and so for a change, why not avoid the madding crowd, take the road less travelled, and discover these less-known Holy Week events in Pampanga:

The pasyon serenata of Barangay San Basilio in Sta. Rita (Holy Wednesday evening). You've heard the pasyon, you’ve heard the serenata, but I'm sure you haven’t heard the pasyon serenata, which is the showdown between two brass bands and their respective choirs who chant the pasyon to the tune of classical operas. They take turns, one page at a time, until they finish the entire book (which takes about 24 hours). Be prepared to be blown away by the sight and sound of betel-chewing barrio folks chanting the history of salvation in Kapampangan and to the tune of Verdi and Puccini. Despite their guegue it’s a performance worthy of a concert hall instead of some dusty road in a remote farming village.

The grand procession of penitents in Mabalacat City (Good Friday early morning). It's a scene straight out of a Cecil B. DeMille movie: hundreds, maybe thousands, of half-naked flagellants and cross-bearers in flowing red robes, brought together by sin and tradition, converge in the church patio for an orgy of suffering, self-mutilation and penance.

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The number of penitents makes you wonder if flagellation, like circumcision, is a rite of passage among boys in Pampanga. (It also makes you wonder why Kapampangans, usually vain, would want to lacerate their skin and flesh and disfigure their pampered bodies).

The cenakulo of barangay Lourdes in Angeles City (Good Friday late morning). The passion play is performed by actors who I suspect are thugs, stevedores and butchers from the nearby Pampang market, because they chase the actor playing Jesus and beat him up with such realism and violence the poor guy often ends up in the local clinic. It even has a live crucifixion which tourists from Clark and Koreatown must pay an entrance fee of P200 to see.

The extreme penitents (Maundy Thursday and Good Friday). They’re all over Pampanga, but it takes luck to catch them—the cross-bearers who carry electric posts and huge banana trunks (seen in Brgy. San Agustin in Magalang), the women cross-bearers, the transvestite cross-bearers, the cross-bearers who tie a samurai around their waist with the tip pressed against their chin to keep their heads up, and the cross-bearers who are tied to both sides of the same cross so that they can take turns carrying each other (seen in Dau). In Brgy. Pampang, Angeles City I saw a cancer-stricken mother carrying a cross while her entire family followed her around. And then there are the dreadful magsalibatbat, who crawl on the road for miles, rubbing their skin continuously against the concrete until they’re all bruised and covered with dirt.

The tanggal of Guagua (Good Friday). This is the ritual where a life-size statue of Jesus with moveable neck and joints is taken down from the cross and laid down and dressed up to become the Santo Entierro (The Interred Christ). The town’s Velez-Zaragoza clan performs the elaborate ritual with the same care and solemnity as I imagine a family would prepare a departed member for burial. In the past, parish workers closed all church doors and windows and banged metal to simulate the eclipse and the thunderclaps that supposedly accompanied the Crucifixion, and to arouse the same fear and awe experienced by the Jews. Today, we just rely on the rhetoric and theatrics of the Sieta Palabras speakers.

The páso of Bacolor (Good Friday). The entire province quiets down as night falls on Good Friday, when parishes hold hushed processions of their heirloom santos, led by the Santo Entierro and the Mater Dolorosa.

They’re all happening simultaneously: the candlelit carrozas of Arayat which transport you back in time, the sweet sound of violins playing Stabat Mater in San Fernando (added attraction: rose petals thrown from the balcony of the Rodriguez Mansion), the pomp, pageantry and piety of Sta. Rita reminiscent of Lino Brocka’s Tinimbang ka Ngunit Kulang, the breathtaking beauty of the Mater Dolorosa of Guagua, and the grandeur of the Santo Entierro of Sasmuan. But if you have to attend only one, make it Bacolor, the colonial capital of the province, whose old families, driven away by the lahars of the 1990s, make a sentimental journey back home to accompany their respective paso (float).

Tradition dictates that they wear black, cover their heads with pointed hoods, hold icons of the crucifixion and walk barefoot (probably a legacy from ancestors in Seville, Spain). The antiquity and craftsmanship alone of the santos and their silver-plated carrozas will make your jaw drop.

The unusual Biyernis Santo procession of Sasmuan (Good Friday)—unusual because the grim procession of the dead Jesus and His grieving Mother is followed by a grimmer procession of magdaráme (flagellants and cross-bearers). Sasmuan is the only place I know where this strange mix of the folk and the orthodox is allowed. Parish priests often make an effort to eliminate cultural practices to purify the theology of church rituals. For example, the pasyon mustn’t replace the Bible, the puni mustn’t compete with the visita iglesia, and the penitensya musn’t keep people away from the sacrament of confession. But Kapampangans have stubbornly stuck to their folk traditions, and the archdiocese is now finding ways to compromise.

This is Pampanga, where church piety collides with folk defiance, where the holiest days of the year are celebrated in the unholiest manner, where the charming and solemn rites of the Church coexist with the raw, bloody, but ultimately more exuberant rituals of the common folk.

Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on April 08, 2014.

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