“We celebrate the death of Christ,” one cultural participant stated.
“Happy Resurrection Week!” an email greeted me.
These views of Holy Week are in stark contrast, and it is in the middle of them that we live. My heart pleads the latter, but my neighbors proclaim the former.
Our first Easter in the Philippines was a shock to me, not only culturally, but spiritually. Whereas Easter is celebrated in the Western world as the pinnacle experience of Holy Week…the celebrated end of Christ’s misery and the promise of new life, I discovered painfully that Easter to the Filipino was essentially a non-issue, compared to the death of Christ. I don’t draw the line here between protestant or catholic, because I believe that in the West, catholics also celebrate Easter and its promises. But Southeast Asian catholocism, brought here by the Spanish over 400 years ago, dwells on the suffering, and then the death, of Christ.
In the past, although we haven’t found people personally who truly believe this, “black Saturday,” the day on which Jesus lay in the tomb, was seen as an unlucky day to go out, because “God is dead…who is there to look after you?” Easter then is the day that God is “back in business,” and so people return to normal life.
The shock I had as a Christian on my first Easter in the Philippines was this: while Easter served in my traditional framework as the event of Holy Week, I saw that for Filipinos it was a day to get back to work, get back to life as normal. The events of the week, the days leading up to Easter, were the celebration. Filled with somber prayer vigils and processions, these were the days people took off work and gathered their families. Jesus’ resurrection was not the pinnacle, but as I could see, the “ok, now it’s over, back to work.”
One way this was driven home to me our first very hot Easter in the Philippines was that our trash wasn’t picked up on Saturday, “Black Saturday,” but on the day I naively assumed would be seen as holy, the trash truck came around bleating its loud obnoxious horn: welcome to Easter Sunday. Places of business were re-opened, people were back on the streets. I felt myself in a twilight zone. I was in a “Christian” nation, yet the activities around me did not represent an attachment to what the day represented.
Now, I don’t mind that people don’t hunt Easter eggs (I know that has nothing to do with Jesus, although we are doing it with Josiah this year because it is an American tradition we want him to experience). But what slaps me in my spiritual face is the fact that Jesus is who he is, and we celebrate and worship him because he did what no other god has done or can do for us: he conquered death. You take that away from the understanding of his suffering, and you have an incomplete picture of Jesus.
This year I’ve done some things to prepare myself for missing out on the large and bright celebrations of Easter I grew up with. We have invited a few mothers and their children to hunt Easter eggs with Josiah and eat sugar cookies. We will explain to them the reason we celebrate Easter like this is because it’s good to have a party to celebrate what Jesus did on Resurrection Sunday. I hope the message will be received. If nothing else, it will help us be not so lonely on Easter Sunday.
But as we are still in the middle of Holy Week, we are participating in ways with the cultural understanding of the week. We may not agree with the practices, but we’re trying to walk alongside our new friends in their traditions. One such tradition in our town, San Andres, is a procession through the town, stopping at various tableaus representing the Stations of the Cross. As a protestant, we don’t pray through or even think much about the fourteen Stations of the Cross. But as a good student of history, I know what they are, and have prayed through them in my lifetime. I’m thankful for that experience, as it served me well to better understand the extra-biblical representations I saw during the procession.
I was asked to be a judge, not necessarily because I’m someone special but because I’m an American. Edwin is also an American, of course, but because he’s ethically Filipino the locals find it hard to consider him an outsider. What’s funny is that I’m not really an outsider anymore, since I live in the town and belong to one of the neighborhoods where the tableaus are being presented (each town is divided into several neighborhoods which compete in the tableaus, the grand prize being around $400US). But I’m white-skinned, which makes me a forever outsider, and so I qualified as a judge, along with other white-skinned foreigners visiting the town for various reasons.
Regardless of the reasons I was chosen, it really is an honor to be a part of it. More than that, it gave us a reason to walk in the processional, which we would likely not have done if I hadn’t been asked. This gave us an inside point of view for what the majority of the town showed up for.
Above: Josiah on Edwin’s shoulders as we followed an image in the procession.
We started at the central catholic church in town, where the revered images of different saints were put on floats and started out in procession, following a route that would take them, and us, to see the tableaus. Josiah was excited because he was “in a parade, Mom. I’m in a parade!”
The tableaus were modeled after pictures of the fourteen Stations of the Cross which were notably not historically or culturally accurate. Jesus was frequently portrayed in the pictures (displayed at each station), as seemingly “too holy” to be really suffering. The people playing the part of Jesus are revered in the community as having served a kind of penance. The more difficult the pose they hold through the event, the more talked about they are. In some parts of the Philippines people actually volunteer to be crucified on a cross, as an act of penance and a way to keep themselves “safe,” or “covered” for the rest of the year. Covered. Only the blood of Jesus can do that.
Above: The 11th Station of the Cross: Jesus Crucified
Locally available natural fibers were used to recreate the Stations
Despite my sadness at the misunderstanding of who Jesus is or what he really did for us in his Passion, I was taken aback by the artistry and beauty with which the tableaus were constructed. We judged based not only on visual accuracy (again, based solely on how they matched the pictures of the Stations), but also on their use of indigenous materials, such as abaca, a tree bark fiber most commonly known as hemp and harvested on this island, one of the highest qualities of its kind in the world; coconut in various forms: open shells, cut shells pieced to make various designs; bamboo reeds; palm branches and other parts of the palm tree. It was spectacular.
But one Station stood out as the most troublesome to me. The one in which Jesus dies. At the foot of the cross Mary stands, lit up looking holy and beautiful. She is surrounded by several worshipers, lifting their hands to her in prayer and adoration. Jesus has two worshipers, in the shadows, at the foot of his cross. The obvious central figure is Mary. It is heart breaking. In a place where Mary is honored and revered, worshiped with songs and novenas, “Mama Mary” is the one in the hearts of the people. Jesus is a peripheral. He may be the way to the Father, but Mary is the way to him. Mary is tangible, someone the people can relate to, and somehow the one through whom miracles are expected.
Our town’s local claim to fame is a stone with Mary’s portrait on it, purported to be growing. People pilgrimage to the church that holds the stone, encased on the altar. Each Holy Week the stone is removed from its casing and travels along with the processions, the prized possession in the hearts of the people. Thursday night we heard people walking the distance to the church where the stone is housed, and awoke Friday morning to hear a mass being said in the plaza outside our house by pilgrims on their way to see the stone. Holy Week and the Passion of Jesus aside: this stone is the real point of interest for worshipers in the area. (You can see more here: http://batongpaluway.blogspot.com/ and here: http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/101031/news/weirdandwacky/miraculous-stone-with-image-of-mary-grows-in-bicol)
Above: The 12th Station of the Cross: Jesus dies
In a culture where Jesus is revered, he is merely second to his mother. No wonder his resurrection is not the point of interest in this week where “we celebrate the death of Christ.”
As a Christian, I only celebrate Christ’s death for what it did for humankind, and what it lead to: he had to die so that death would lose, so that he could come back to life and restore the world to its original glory. Do not hear me to say that I diminish the Cross of Christ, for I know what was accomplished there. I daily acknowledge the grace that flowed out there, and I know that the death of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary was and is a significant accomplishment in the Story that I step into because I’m forgiven in the Cross, covered by the blood shed on the Cross, and alive because I take part in the Bread of Life, slaughtered on the Cross. Yet if we linger in the death of Christ, we don’t know Christ. How can we? There is no Spirit there. There is no Life.
But the Resurrection…that is where the life and works and death of Jesus Christ meet their grand climax: the conquering, victorious Christ, risen from death as Lord and King, plowing the way for his followers to know him in Spirit and in Truth, and that forever. That is the prayer we have for the people of San Andres. Might there be someday a celebration of Christ’s passion so that people will celebrate Life in Christ, celebrated on Easter Sunday as the beginning of knowing, truly knowing, Christ.