It is funny how cultures and traditions meld together to form what is Easter as we know it today.
Pagan times in the Anglo-Saxon regions celebrated the feast of Eastre signifying the beginning of spring and the vernal equinox (when day and nights share equal length) is when they’d give away colourful eggs and feast on rabbits.
During Jesus’ time, the Hebrew celebrated the Pesach or the Passover for 8 days to commemorate their freedom and flight from Egypt. The Last Supper may have been a few days before the Passover and the symbology of the sacrificial lamb tied in with Jesus as the lamb of God.
The Christian leaders agreed in the Council of Nicea to hold Easter on a Sunday but the varying lunar calendar of the Teutonic Easter conflicts with that of the Romans. So it was agreed to hold Easter on the first Sunday after the spring equinox which is after the 21st of March. Thus Easter Sunday can fall on any day between 22nd March and 25th April.
For Catholics, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and the Holy Week starts from Palm Sunday commemorating Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem until Easter Sunday, when he triumphs over death.
In the Philippines, Easter is a part of the Holy Week, a very important celebration in the predominantly Catholic country. I’d like to share some memories of our beautiful Holy Week celebration.
Palaspas or Palm Sunday is celebrated with people going to mass with palm leaves designed like flowers, insects, and many other creative forms. People at the end of mass gather round for the priest to spray holy water on their palm leaves and go home to prepare for a week-long of meditation and reflection.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are normal days and so people go to work, school etc. but in a subdued atmosphere. Revelry is not encouraged because it appears like a direct insult to the graveness of what Christ is about to go through. This is also the time when people refrain from eating meat and would offer small sacrifices i.e. refrain from liquor or smoking as a sign of penance.
Maundy Thursday is when Jesus began his suffering. People go to church and pray, follow the way of the cross (Station of the Cross) and say the rosary. It is advised to visit as many churches as you can. On the street corners you have the local stores and community hangouts converted into a tent where a woman in megaphone or microphone sings out the “Pasyon” in that eerie but melodious sound reminding me of a long-forgotten Spanish tune lost in the folds of religion and history. One line keeps playing in my memories auditory flashback “Nang si Hudas ay madulas....” (When Judas slipped...)
Starting on this day, Thursday, until Saturday, people do not eat. When before it was just abstinence, this time it is fasting. If your physical constitution can handle it, water and bread is ok or none at all would be more commendable.
Friday and Saturday still has the Pasyon singers but now you also have the Penitensya – the penitents who walk the streets in quiet procession wearing crowns of thorns or barbed wire, bare chests with whips – some with pointed edges – that they use to beat themselves on the back. It is such a surreal sight; like the entire Jesus of Nazareth – the Robert Powel version – is being played before your eyes but with local flavour. Oh and yes, watching movies like The Ten Commandments and Jesus of Nazareth is not only encouraged, it’s what’s on in most of the local TV stations so you have no choice but to watch them.
Seen a real live man being nailed onto the cross with blood all over him? Not only is this in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ but visit the Philippines at this time of the year and you will see penitents do the same, and drink and celebrate the next day in drunken abandon!
After visiting all the churches that you can and doing the Station of the cross for a few times, you sit and keep vigil in Church on Saturday night. Early the next morning, at about 4:00am is the “Salubong” where Mama Mary (a big thing for Filipino Catholics) meets her risen son Jesus at dawn on Easter Sunday. Most churches are open and people are there in throngs, the statues of both Mary and Jesus provide a spectacular form of entertainment with candles and hymns being sung, this could be quite a moment!
Then Easter is the Filipino’s excuse to party. In a fiesta like atmosphere Filipinos have also recently adopted Easter eggs and bunnies along with the more traditional food and customs of giving rosaries and prayer books on Easter. I’m the undefeated Easter egg hunter of my family.
For most Filipinos, the Holy week is the time to be with family either off to a retreat somewhere of just at home. Being summer in the Philippines it is a good time to get together before school starts in June. Most Filipinos working or studying in Manila would take the week off to go home to family and be with loved ones.
This is my memory of Holy Week and Easter in the Philippines. I wonder how much of it has changed since then.