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Seeking Forgiveness in Sickness and in Health

The Holy Week has all but vanished this year in the vast Christendom.

Not wars and not overwhelming victories were ever successful in stopping the Christians from observing the rites commemorating the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. Even in the most violently hostile environments like those presented by feudal Japan where believers were executed, Christians managed to continue their observance of the ceremonials that linked them to their newfound faith. Like the persecuted early Christians under certain Roman emperors who had the catacombs for places of worship, the Japanese sought shelter in isolated islands and villages on in esoteric art forms that concealed Christian artefacts. A mirror, for example, had a lid that reflected a cross on the wall. Thus were born the so-called kakure Kirishitan or hidden Christians.

There is no systematic persecution of faith now happening in the country but there is virus newly discovered that has proven to be more persistent and threatening than any system of controls human societies in contemporary times have ever devised. Graduations, as of this writing have been cancelled. The opening of school years are now uncertain. The latest victim of this virus is the week that is considered most sacred to Christians.

This is the week that allows us to relive the narrative of the death of the Son of God on the Cross. This compendium of days of begin on a Sunday, reaching its peak on Friday, at the foot of the Cross. The evening of that Friday witnesses Mary in solitude as she walks the street of a town or city in search for the tomb of her Son. On Sunday, as the dawn breaks, two groups of people walk, bearing their own respective icon – the grieving Mother shrouded in black and the Risen Christ., in churches.

From Sunday to Sunday, icons representing parts and phases in the life of Christ are presented through processions around the major streets of the place where the parish is located. Parishioners dress up as they also dress the icons that are owned by the families. Flowers are made into garlands to cover the andas or carrosas for the icons. Except for the pall of grief that covers Good Friday, the entire week usually is marked by joy and frenzy.

Pageantry and a sense of the “carnivalesque” triumph as a form of aesthetics during the Semana Santa. The people, whether observing at the side of participating in the long processions, stand for the strength of the Church in a particular place.

But what happens when people cannot join anymore these processions?

In Naga as well as in other places in the country and many parts of the world, processions in the sense of a large mass of people following “pasos” or icons were cancelled to observe physical distancing.

Are rituals efficacious when observed differently? With no one to accompany the Blessed Mother during the late evening procession called “Soledad,” can the rite be completed?

Within that week and the succeeding days, Perdon was also held in the city of Naga and in other places.

Perdon is an odd but engaging rituals. The name refers to the title of the song sung during the entire procession but it also refers to the overwhelming act of seeking forgiveness because we have “sinned.”

To focus merely on sin is to limit the power of Perdon. True, the song both in the Bikol and Spanish languages, ask for forgiveness because of our iniquidad or iniquities. But there lives a book outside contrition.

The song begins with the lines “Perdon, O dios Mio. Dios mi, Perdon. Perdon, Señor Mio. O Perdon y Piedad.”

Then the lines that follow are enumeration and litany of personal faults, confession of sins, then it is back to the begging for forgiveness and pity.

Perdon as a prayer or a ritual will remain as part of the many everyday prayers or rituals but something happens in the middle of the prayer. A change takes place. Where before we can see the believer almost prostrate in his entreating for consolation, a line arises, with a different tone and character. It talks first about how the Señor or Lord has shed his blood so that “I may be saved.” More dramatic is what the faithful says when, he leaves his humility behind. This is the part where the devotee says if you were able to let your blood flow from the cross, then I can also shed my own blood to pay for my sins. In the Bikol translation, the word “iola” is used, a term that borders on the gross and vulgar. Far from being disrespectful, the choice of word implies that the speaker comes from the less exalted position in society, a posture that enables him to use a word that is diminished in grace and poetry.

All these rituals – from those happening in the Holy Week and those related to penitential processions like the Perdon – were transformed all in the name of the virus and the afflictions it brings.

Vans and small trucks bore icons including the Cross as it traversed the city and town streets. Accompanying the artefacts of religion were seminarians and a sole priest. In the town of Pili, Fr. Wilmer S. Tria, the scholar/writer who now is the parish priest of the San Rafael Parish, used the humble “skates” so he could bring the Cross closer to those who lived by the railroad tracks.

A stirring photo appearing in FaceBook shows men and women kneeling by the roadside, each one separated by meters of efficient spacing, as they await the Blessed Sacrament.

Here is a church as old as the civilization as we know it, altering its ancient rites. Here is that Church lifting the veil of the sacred as it brings the Blessed Sacrament, that vessel with the consecrated body and blood of Christ, out of the sanctum of the church into the wild and warm roads of everyday life. Here is a Church conceding to the crisis not in defeat but in the triumph of its will to touch the people as only it can – through a space so divine – the tremendum et fascinans, - it can repel as it can attract the spirit and the body all at once, navigating the all-too-human, all-too-scientific, dictum that distancing can bring us closer to healing, a return to a life where daily routine is about living and not dying.

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