Thursday, April 2, 2015

Easter or Wester: a Latitude of Holy Week Observations

Palm Sunday 2015 | Easter or Wester: a Latitude of Holy Week Observations
Palm Sunday mass, L.A. 2015

He Writes...

For those who observe it, Holy Week in the US must seem to look different every year, and I wonder if it has become easier to uphold the feeling and tone of the most solemn time among Christians.

Amid the store sales ads, the commercials for the best libations, and the images of elation among students lucky enough to have Spring Break on the same week, does the week still feel like the days leading up to Easter Sunday? Does it still hold as the time to reflect and gather oneself for all that follows the weekend of awareness and remembrance?

These questions themselves arose within me at church with Kira last Sunday, when I observed the use of palms by the congregation to commemorate Palm Sunday. Images and thoughts of palm fronds reverently waved in unison by mass attendees in the Philippines towards the priest during the mass procession was a sharp contrast to what I was seeing at church in LA that seemed like origami contests among all, young and old. Mind you, no flapping cranes or paper box kites...just the usual crosses with triple reinforcement at the center.

Holy Week 2015, LA | Easter or Wester: a Latitude of Holy Week Observations
Palm frond crosses

The expectations are clear as to how Lent is commemorated in the Philippines. The traditional observances repeat consistently every year, whereas in the US, the only indicators of the upcoming Holy Week is the Easter weekend, marked by consumer specials and egg hunts.

What stands out the most for me overall is the degree to which Holy Week is observed here in the US in comparison to the Philippines. It’s interesting how the observance by those in a country in which roughly 70-percent practice and identify with the Roman Catholic religion are re-enactments of the biblical Holy Week events, whereas in a quasi-multi-denominational country like the US, observance seems passive, obligatory, individualized (how successful has one truly been giving up Starbucks for Lent), but highlighted by the weekend reprieve instead of the solemnity of the historic occasion.

Understandably, a country with the third largest world population that identifies with a myriad of denominations can eventually dilute the meaning behind certain religious observances, perhaps to avoid favoring one faith over another (except for Christmas).

There’s no query here questioning the degree of significance of Easter in the US, but only food-for-thought for the denominational, and comparison to other parts of the our case, to the Philippines. 

If it is a time of reflection, then perhaps one can embrace the biblical story motif of the triumph of good over evil, of spring and fertility and rebirth, and of rejuvenation from the winter to the spring of our lives. That death and despair is brief and shall always be overcome by life and revitalization may just be the best individual-level story of all.

She Writes...

Growing up in the northern town of Bangued, Abra in the Catholic country of the Philippines, Holy Week was for the most part a solemn holiday. It was a quiet time for reflection and a long weekend for families to spend time together.

As I moved farther away from my hometown for school and work, I started to see how other parts of the Luzon island were like during the Semana Santa (Holy Week).  Coming across and understanding other denominations and religions, I also saw the different rituals and individual preferences when commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the small community where I spent my childhood, my friends and I were discouraged from running around the neighborhood and playing too much to respect Semana Santa. On Good Fridays, we were also told to stay put because there were greater odds of getting into accidents; to be extra careful because wounds and burns heal slow or don’t heal at all; and not to do heavy work as not to get sick or injured.

Holy Week also meant being an Easter angel in time for the salubong (meeting). Salubong happens at dawn; it is when the statue of the risen Christ meets the statue of Virgin Mary covered in a black veil- symbolically depicting the resurrection on the third day.  The angels who participate in the salubong sing songs while statues meet and the black veil of mourning is removed.

I must have played an angel only once or twice and although it was a good way for me as a child to see what Easter meant, not all my memories were fond. The last time I played an angel, one of the boy angels lit a firecracker and burned my wings.

When my angel days were over, this was replaced the local Holy Week tradition of the life-sized Stations of the Cross called abong-abong and long processions around town. The reminder that friends would tell me about joining processions would be not to wear happy colors like red because it was a time of grief.

To this day, this strong Catholic tradition in Abra lives on. There is still so much reverence in the observance of Lent.  (See photos below courtesy of Lee A. Collo)

Palm Sunday in Abra, 2014 | Easter or Wester: a Latitude of Holy Week Observations
Palm Sunday, Abra, Philippines, 2014
Abra Holy Week 2014 | Easter or Wester: a Latitude of Holy Week Observations
Life-sized Station of the Cross, Abra, 2014

This is how deeply religious and traditional the people from my province are.  But this is not the only way Holy Week is observed in Luzon. In the central Luzon provinces of Bulacan and Pampanga for example, it is typical to see men carrying crosses and self-flagellating on roadsides.  Some of those who carry the cross nail themselves to it.

In Metro Manila where I lived before immigrating to be with Ray, Holy Week was very peaceful mainly because of the exodus of residents to their respective provinces or for long getaways.

The cities in this area are known for heavy traffic flows that bottleneck in intersections. But with the exodus of residents came the exodus of cars, which meant the streets were uncluttered and serene in the absence of honking and yelling.

For most who cannot go home to their respective provinces, they do the visita iglesia or church visits of different parishes and cathedrals in the area or nearby towns during the Holy Week as a personal pilgrimage.

In most cities of Metro Manila where there are videokes in every corner (because we Filipinos just love to sing), Holy Week means not hearing anyone who lives a kilometer or two away from you murder the tune and mangle the lyrics of a song through blasting speakers until the wee hours.  The silence of the neighborhood during the Holy Week was enough to make me grateful. 

Tourist destinations offer a different atmosphere during the Semana Santa. In Baguio City, the summer capital of the Philippines where I studied college, the Holy Week meant a heavy influx of tourists. So I would always hope that finals were scheduled before the Holy Week so that I could escape the city before the local tourist invasion. 

Even though I hardly remember ever being in Baguio on a Holy Week, my stay there was a period of faith and personal relationship with God exploration. I learned that compliance to tradition and even going to the extremes did not necessarily weigh more than what was in a person’s heart- that I could either wear red or neon green and still keep in my mind the passion of Christ and be thankful for my salvation.

Other tourist destinations such as Tagaytay and Subic also come alive during the Holy Week that establishments are open even on a Good Friday when most businesses from malls to gasoline stations nationwide are closed.

Even if I grew up surrounded by very conservative Holy Week customs, over the years and throughout the seasons of my life, I have learned not to use the values and traditions of my culture to make assumptions based on the choices that people make in remembrance of this time. Although sometimes, the critical-cynical thinker in me prevails, and I fall short.

To conclude to this entry, a verse from 1 Samuel 16 comes to mind, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at outward appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart.” #

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