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Marathon singing, vigils and pre-dawn processions as Filipinos celebrate Holy Week

MANILA: As Christians around the world celebrate Holy Week, Filipinos are observing their unique traditions, which will culminate on Sunday with Easter — the joyous commemoration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

In the largest Christian-majority nation in Asia, where over 85 million people identify as Catholic, folk traditions have blended with more than 300 years of Spanish colonial influences, leading to unique expressions and observances of faith.

One of the most enduring yet extreme examples is senakulo, a street drama that depicts Jesus’ passion and death, where men flagellate and, in some cases, nail themselves to the cross as an act of penance.

But not all Filipino Catholics adhere to these practices, instead engaging in other traditions.

They began the observance of Holy Week with Palm Sunday last week, when churchgoers brought palm branches to be blessed by priests.

The palm branch symbolizes victory, peace and eternal life and once they receive blessing, Filipinos put them up at home either as decor or by windows or doorways to ward off bad spirits.

They represent the branches that according to the Gospel crowds laid down as Jesus entered Jerusalem a few days before his crucifixion.

“The Holy Week allows me to impart the importance of this occasion to my children, now that they’re a little bit older,” said Edgie Ruiz for whom the annual holiday is an opportunity to reconnect with loved ones.

“This is also the time when our relatives who live far away come to spend time with us, which is something I always look forward to.”

The bulk of religious traditions begin on Holy Thursday, the day during Holy Week that commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus. It is observed with a custom during which the priest washes the feet of 12 people — imitating the humility of Jesus, who washed the feet of his apostles on the night before his crucifixion.

Ruiz was one of those chosen to take part in the ritual at his local parish in Hermosa, Bataan province.

“My grandfather used to participate in this tradition as one of the chosen ‘apostles,’” he said. “The priest chooses common, everyday people to take part.”

Another tradition on Holy Thursday is the Visita Iglesia — visiting at least seven different churches to pray.

Gerald Gloton, who resides in Pampanga province 83 km north of Manila, has been practicing the Visita Iglesia tradition since childhood.

“The Visita Iglesia is very important for me because it unites our family. We visit various churches that depict the importance of faith, heritage, and culture,” he said.

Pampanga is known for its strong Catholic traditions, including several historical churches dating back to the Spanish colonial period — another aspect that Gloton looks forward to in this annual ritual.

“Aside from the spiritual reflection and family bonding, I also look forward to the intricate details and architecture of our churches which are regarded as structural treasures,” he said.

Another centuries-old tradition that continues to be practiced is the pabasa — a marathon reading of the passion of Christ, sung by volunteers, usually women, in their parishes. In urban places like Manila, the pabasa can run for more than a day, but in rural areas and places with intact traditions like Pampanga, it can go on for nearly a week.

While some Filipino communities have adopted Western practices such as hunting Easter eggs on Sunday morning, one of the most anticipated rituals is the salubong, or welcoming, a pre-dawn Easter ritual in which a solemn procession of the images of the mourning Virgin Mary and a risen Christ meet from opposite ends in front of a church.

A chorus of children, sometimes singing from hanging platforms to give the illusion of flying in mid-air, sing to herald the occasion. A child is assigned to lift the black veil off Virgin Mary, signifying the end of her mourning.

For Crystal Arcega from Batangas, south of Manila, the ritual’s atmosphere is the most joyous of all.

“It’s when the baby angels throw confetti and wave their wands, and the choir sings. That’s when the Easter Mass starts, and the church lights are turned on,” she said.

“It’s a beautiful moment and worth waking up early for.”

After Easter Mass, Filipino families will gather over celebratory meals and delicacies.

The rice cakes sold in front of churches, such as the suman and tamales — delicacies wrapped in banana leaves — are a must-have after the mass.

At home, they are followed by fried chicken, braised meat dishes in a tangy-sweet sauce, and kare-kare — a rich oxtail peanut stew.

The most sacred period in the liturgical year in Christianity, which is filled with mourning, prayers and fasting to culminate in togetherness and feast, is for many a time that strengthens their faith.

For Arcega, it is a “way to remind us how much sacrifice Jesus has made, and how despite being in the form of man, is able to show us God’s unconditional love,” she said.

“It really becomes the time for me to reflect and be thankful.”

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