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The Shifting Celebration of Sorrows and Redemption

Each year, online, I marvel at the wondrous spectacle in Spain that commemorates the Passion and Death of Christ through singular processions. At the center of this carnivalesque feasts are the icons or pasos bedecked in resplendent costumes, the iconographies clear about what they represent or what they stand for in the greatest story ever told.

It is a week where the local church with the people maintain old rituals, many of which are not even supported by dogmas or narratives from the Bible. But these unique ceremonials, odd to a certain degree, cross the line of the secular and the sacred. Creating a domain filled with potency and power, these rites of healing and believing give the people, more than the institutional Church – that massive structure from which emanates commands about faith – the sense of ownership about religion. In other words, these processions that may be unnecessary to some, are really the very point in which believers confirm their standing in the community of Catholics or Roman Catholics. Given how similar many rituals have remained, we can include here the members of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente that parallel commemoration of Holy Week in their churches.

The Holy Week of my childhood in Ticao Island and in Naga City have changed radically through the years.

In Ticao, for example, the Wednesday and Good Friday processions were grand feasts, with people from far-flung villages coming down to the town to participate in the religious rituals. In general, people dressed well for the week, with the bright dresses reserved until Wednesday. Up to the said day, the pasos or statues of saints are also dressed majestically in gold, silver and shining draperies. This highlights the change in colors to black and other somber tones when Friday comes, the day Christ dies, or the moment where at three in the afternoon, the statue of Crucified Christ, through tricks of the sculptors, heaves his last breath and drops his head to the tune of the most sorrowful songs in Spanish.

In Naga, from the 60s (and I suppose way back earlier) and up to the 70s, there were the famous Estudiantina. The group has no clear meaning and origin. If one looks at the term, Estudiantina, it could refer to a band of musicians composed of students. Indeed, dressed in black and white, the musicians coming from different classes, were dressed like minstrels of the European medieval era. They played the music for Soledad, a procession reenacting the Search of the Mary for the Tomb of Christ done in solitude, thus the name in Spanish. The Mater Dolorosa was accompanied by St. John and, sometimes, to allow more exposure for the other santos, the Tres Marias or Three Marys and the other characters in the Passion Play were enabled to reprise their function to be with Mary. In the city, there were designated stops where the procession stopped and the Dolorosa was made to pause and face a makeshift stage where a woman dressed in black and her head covered in black veil sang a song of grief. With the positioning, the woman appeared to sing to the Virgin, but in the narrative, the singer was really portraying Mary in her deep sadness and tears.

This tableau vivant ended at the Plaza Quezon where a trio would now render their hymns of consolation for Mary and the people. In the 60s and 70s, the construction for the “Tuntunan,” or the tower representing Heaven from which would descend the Angels in the order of importance they had earned during a money contest would be nearly finished by Good Friday. This was then the practice, to craft Heaven in bamboo materials that could be taken down when there was no need for the Christ to rise from the dead. This went on until churches opted to build sturdier or semi-permanent “Tuntunan” or heavens in steel and cement. Unlike the old practice, now you could see and climb the tower-like structure during Holy Week or on non-holy week.

Heaven has ceased to be ephemeral; Heaven has become a fixture, for good or bad.

This week, the Savage Mind group continued with their panata or vow of having a reading of Pasyon. This began last year when the group – Savage Mind – was still planning on having more venues and drafting visions for their endeavors. Noel Volante also began his panata to prepare the food for the chanters. This time as last time, he spent his own money and resources for the food and drinks, which included the required “Hinulog-hulog” and the customary alcohol drinks, just to ease the voices that they may be heard by the Blessed Trinity and the choir of angels.

We have so much to thank for this year but that is not what we are happy about. In our search for chanters, we moved around the nearby towns – Camaligan, Magarao, Canaman, Buhi – to secure the services of these old men and women who continue to practice the said tradition. We were a few days already before the scheduled date of the Pasyon but our contacts had no assurance yet. We were told that many of these chanters had been booked earlier for many households. This is good news for true cultural workers: there is no such thing as dead traditions. We have them alive in various localities. In so many ways, they do not have any need for us to preserve these practices for them. They will continue to chant the Pasyon whether we write about them or not, whether we analyze their skills and songs to death.


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