Celebrating Mahal na Araw – “Holy Week” in the Philippines

The Philippines is known to be the only predominantly Christian country in the whole of Asia, with its roots of the religion tracing back from circa. 1500. It was the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who, by mistake, landed on the island of Cebu during his travels along the spice route. In search of trade materials and foreign lands to colonize, he bargained with Chief Humabon, leader of Cebu, which ended with around 800 newly-baptized Filipino Christians.

The story now lives on in the Philippine’s version of the Holy Week celebration, wherein the foundations of Christianity, namely the life and passion of Jesus Christ, is re-lived and celebrated in one of the grandest, holiest, and most spiritual time in the Philippine calendar.

The Philippine Holy Week celebration is a period of wherein devotees reenact the significant moments of Jesus Christ’s life, from the time of his preaching, going through the time of his death, and until his resurrection. Christians all over the Philippines also use this opportune time in the calendar to reflect what it really means to become a Christian, and to grasp a deeper understanding of one’s significance in the saving from sins done by Christ himself.

View of the San Sebastian Church
View of the San Sebastian Church. Photo by Solomonic

Practices done in the Philippines

Despite being called the holy week, the celebration is not just encompassed within 7 days, rather it goes back 40 days prior the first week of April, which starts exactly on Ash Wednesday. This day is the signal of the start of the Lenten Season, wherein Christians devote their time and effort to fasting, abstinence, contemplation, and repentance. This is the time when most Filipinos, including tourists who wish to join in the celebration of Holy Week, reflect on their lives the past years and try to live the upcoming days with a renewed since of gratitude to God, and a self-made promise to revert their sinful lives.

Ash Wednesday is usually celebrated with hearing the Holy Mass for the day, with millions of people going to churches to receive black ashes on their foreheads. These marks are in the shape of a crucifix, and remind devotees that from dust we were made, and to dust we shall return. The ashes used on the foreheads of the devotees are made up of no ordinary ashes; the ashes come from the burnt palm leaves used during the prior year’s Palm Sunday celebration. This is to mark the contemplation of last year’s life and assess whether life was a life full of sin, or a life full of God’s grace.

Holy Wednesday precession
Holy Wednesday precession. Photo by agapbulusan

The next 40 days will now be the official start of the Lenten Season, wherein Filipinos and tourists alike will start the journey of preparation for the coming rebirth of Jesus Christ. The weeks following Ash Wednesday will be devoted for fasting and abstinence, although the fasting is now commonly observed by just the absolute devotees to the religion, where only minimal food and water intake is to be allowed. Now in contemporary Philippine culture, most Christians do not observe the fasting ritual as much anymore. This is because a lot of the devotees are also part of the working-class people, and not working for a couple of days due to hunger and thirst brought about by the fasting could result to huge financial losses for themselves and for their families. Nowadays, Filipino Christians observe their own “personal” fasting; this kind of fasting involves selecting one habit/object that the person is willing to give up as a sign of Lenten sacrifice. The common fasts of the today’s Christian youth involve giving up certain bad habits during the Lenten season like smoking or drinking alcohol, while others give up eating or drinking their favorite food items like hamburgers or soft drinks, all for the sake of sacrificing for the celebration of Christ’s rebirth. Abstinence though, is still very much observed by a lot of people. It is the habit of not eating meat during Fridays of the Lenten season.

Bloody Whipping
Young men dress up as Jesus and walk down the streets whipping themselves to repent. Photo by Brian W. Tobin

One of the more common practices of Filipino Christians is the panata or strictly translating, the vow. It is the process by which a devotee would increase his or her efforts in achieving a particular goal or mission that of which constitutes their panata. Most people who are not that religious tend to make their panata more career-oriented, like increasing the effort they exert on their jobs, or personal vows like being a good friend to someone, and also civic duties which include community service. Still, there are still true-blooded Christians who make sure that their panata remain religion-oriented, like going to various churches all around the country, praying set-prayers at set times of the day, and so on and so forth. These are the kinds of religious sacrifices that a true Christian undergoes, not just for the celebration of Christ’s life, but also for the improvement, reflection, and reformation of one’s own life in a kind that befits the word “Christian”.

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Days of Holy Week

The official start of the Holy Week is the 6th Sunday, which is Palm Sunday. It is a festive event within the churches all over the Philippines, contrary to the Lenten sacrifices celebrated before the 6th Sunday. This celebration commemorates Jesus’ re-entry into Jerusalem, albeit knowing that the Jewish officials at the time were already scheming against His downfall from grace. The people welcomed Jesus and His disciples into Jerusalem by means of waving large palm leaves as he entered the town proper. The bigger the church being visited, the more spectacular the display gets, as hundreds or even thousands of palm leaves get raised into the air, waiting to be blessed by the presiding priest. After the mass, the people take their newly-blessed palm leaves and attach them onto window sills and roofs, with the Filipino belief that the blessed palm would bring good luck to the family and household, as well as removing any negativity that might accumulate within the house.

palm sunday celebration
Palm Sunday celebration. Photo by nate0924

The next days that would come would be Holy Monday and Tuesday, where these days are just reserved for people to relax, de-stress, and reflect for the coming important days of Holy Week. Usually the business establishments and government offices remain open during these days. Wednesday is known as Spy Wednesday, which is to commemorate the time when Judas Iscariot spied on Jesus while he was praying at the garden of Gethsemane, just before Judas decided to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Thursday would then be known as Maundy Thursday, which is to commemorate the celebration of the Last Supper Jesus had with His disciples, on the day before he died. The Last Supper is also recognized as the point when Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which was when he decided to impart onto His disciples his own body and blood in the form of the bread and wine.

The day that most business establishments and government offices give a holiday is when Good Friday comes. This is the day when Jesus was tortured, made to walk up to Golgotha, which was the place where He was crucified and where He died at approximately 3pm. This is a time of mourning for the entire Roman Catholic Church, where the statues of saints, of Mary, and of Jesus in churches are covered with cloth as a sign of grief. This lasts until after the following day, Black Saturday, where Jesus is already laid inside his tomb and is still considered dead.

The highlight of Holy Week would definitely be Easter Sunday, where we celebrate the rebirth of Jesus Christ and his triumph against sin. Filipinos celebrate the time when the disciples came to visit the tomb of Jesus, only to find out that the big boulder that was used to cover the tomb’s entrance was moved aside by a powerful force. The disciples then just see torn up sheets of cloth, with an angel sitting where Jesus was supposed to be lying down.

There is a buzz all over the country, especially the most Catholic parts of the archipelago. There is a joyful celebration after the mass, and all the cloths covering the statues are all lifted. The priest also wears bright colored robes to signify that the time of mourning and repentance is done, and the time of rejoicing and the starting of a life anew have come. The various malls in the Metro also cook up a lot of activities for people come Easter Sunday, like Easter egg hunts, egg paintings, and various performances. Fasting and abstinence practices also come to a close, thereby permitting people to make merry by eating again the food that they could not eat during Lent.

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Philippine Holy Week Traditions

The pabasa is the recitation of the life and sufferings of Jesus Christ by ways of verse, which comes directly from the Roman Catholic Bible. A group of people are designated to sing parts of the verse, while being accompanied by music in the background. This is a family-style tradition, wherein most families of a particular community or barangay participate in the singing. If a particular family is not yet designated to be the ones to host the singing, they would help contribute in the fixing of food for the guests or will help in the cleaning of the image/statue of Jesus Christ which they would worship upon. The most loyal of devotees would even start their pabasa at Thursday and do not stop up until Friday.

Senakulo is another well-known tradition of Filipino Christians during Holy Week. If the pabasa was the recital of Jesus Christ’s life and suffering in verse, then the Senakulo is the dramatization of his life and sufferings. These plays are most commonly performed in the streets of the barangays or at the compound of the churches themselves. Back in the olden days, people would really dress-up in well-made costumes depicting roman soldiers and officials complete with body armor and robes. Nowadays, with the advent of technology and communication, the presentation of the Senakulo can now be prepared digitally, with LCD projectors being used to present the scenes on a large white screen so that more people can see the performances of the actors.

Senakulo Holy week
Senakulo during Holy week in the Philippines. Photo by Iluminada Fajardo-Castigador

In the provinces of Pampanga and Rizal, they take Senakulo performances to a whole new level. The true devotees in these provinces would resort to publicly lashing themselves with nails and letting themselves get crucified in public, to show the world their penance and resentment towards a sinful life. These people allow themselves to get whipped repeatedly in the back until they start bleeding, all the while wearing just jeans and a mask around their head. The locals also say that they do this as part of their panata, or their vow to God as a way of thanking Him for the countless blessings He has given them.

The Bisita Iglesia is also another tradition that most Christians observe, since a lot of devotees who are in the younger generation find this tradition fun and exciting. This is also one of the easiest rituals that one can perform. From the name itself, this involves visiting numerous churches all around the neighboring area. This is the time when there is not much traffic on the road, and the staff of the churches just leave minimal lighting turned on to accommodate visitors even at late hours of the night. It is said that if you complete the Bisita Iglesia rounds will have a lucky year ahead of him/her.

Along with the Bisita Iglesia, the practice of the Stations of the Cross accompanies the visiting of the various churches. This is the scene-by-scene reenactment of the events leading up to the crucifixion and ultimately, the rebirth of Jesus Christ. This is done with literal stations, with each one having a picture of the scene being depicted. A short narrative is then said, followed afterwards by short prayers or praying of the rosary. Sometimes, the various stations are found just within the same complex, like a church compound. Other instances involve stations that are far away from each other, sometimes totaling a couple of kilometers worth of walking from the first station to the last station. During these kinds of rituals, the holy rosary is recited along the way onto the next station.

Another modern tradition that Filipino Christians now observe is the showing of religious movies on television. Television networks have taken it up upon themselves to make sure that all people, even those who do not have the time or effort to go out of the house, can at least still manage to watch various television shows and movies depicting the life of Jesus Christ.

A solemn time for everyone

Amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a lot of people tend to become burned out with the things that they are doing and sometimes ask God if they are doing the right thing or if there really is a plan for their existence. Ang Mahal Na Araw is an event not just in the Filipino calendar, but in the Roman Catholic calendar as well, that provides people with the breather that they rightfully deserve.

The Philippine celebration of Holy Week is a time of contemplation and self-assessment, where introspection plays a vital part of the process of changing one’s sinful past. Remembering the life and suffering of Jesus Christ is something that both Filipinos and tourists alike can agree on, that the trials and hardships of one man can serve as an example to a kind of life that leads to personal salvation and redemption. The solemnity of the Filipino Holy Week is something unique—since a lot of the country’s population has its roots deeply set in its religion. This only strengthens the fact that a lot of tourists come to the Philippines for Holy Week; it is here that they can truly appreciate what is good, what is the meaning of suffering, and what is the meaning of salvation. Changing society always demands a change of oneself first, and the kind of atmosphere that Holy Week brings is enough to induce that change within people.

The Mahal na Araw is definitely an event worth celebrating, along with the hospitality that comes along with being Filipino and being a Christian, this time of the year marks the start of change for people—change that is both beneficial to themselves and to the people around them.

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