Thursday, March 27, 2008

Why Is This Night Different From Every Other Night?

'Why is this night different from every other night?'

Maundy Thursday has always been a day of great drama for me. From the time that I could walk, my parents would always take me 'church hopping' on this most holy of nights in the traditional 'visita iglesia' so dear to the Filipino people, the Tagalogs especially. I remember visiting provincial churches--grand, dusty, and tainted with the weight of history--and being awed by the whole experience. The sight of many veiled women, wailing and chanting prayers on their knees, and the heat of literally thousands of bodies packed into a small nave will forever haunt me for the rest of my life.

Oddly enough, Maundy Thursday is also a day of great setbacks and mistakes. There is always something happening during the day that makes it so mundane. Come evening, however, it is a different matter entirely, and this year was no different. One of the most spine-tingling sights for city dwellers in Manila is surely the sight of hundreds of tall buildings, utterly unlit, standing like silent sentinels in a sea of shadows. Every year, this scene is rehearsed again and again, but the potency is as strong as ever.

This year, we visited seven churches as usual-- a far cry from the fourteen churches that my father used to visit when he was my age, and barefoot, too. But just what is it about Maundy Thursday evening that is so different? This year, we followed almost exactly the same route as we did for Maundy Thursday last year. I will focus on the churches of Intramuros. When we reached the walled city--Old Manila, Spanish Manila-- it was probably the visual equivalent of being hit by a tidal wave. I had to suppress a sarcastic chuckle at the sight of so many cars trying to enter through the ancient stone walls, while guards dressed in guardia civil attire herded SUVs and sedans to safe, suitable parking spaces. But more than the cars was the sheer number of people, many of them poor, and almost all of them fulfilling a panata, trudging through the small (relatively speaking) portals of Old Manila. Again, there was a suppressed chuckle, as the a sizable portion of the milling crowd, especially the boys, seemed to be dressed like cholos, faux bling bling and oversized anime shirts and wifebeaters being an 'unofficial' dress code.

Many of them bore crucifixes, the kind that looked mass-produced but had its own unique quality, and almost all of them sporting a bloodied corpus of the Crucified. Many still were barefoot, mud and filth caking the soles of their feet. They numbered in the thousands, squeezing through the churches in undulating waves. The scene at the Manila Cathedral, for example, was too much for words to describe-- hundreds must have crammed through the small chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was reposed. Outside, in the body of the cathedral, bands of penitents knelt on the cold stone floor, praying the Via Crucis. The pews were filled to the brim with men and women, young and old, rich and poor alike. It was like a scene from the bible-- like the crowd before Moses as he parted the Red Sea, like the people of Jerusalem gathered at Golgotha to witness the death of the God-man.

Still in Intramuros, we proceeded next to San Agustin church, oldest of all the houses of God in the Philippines, the sole survivor of the great churches of Intramuros, the crowning glory of Old Manila. It was a five minute walk to this church from the Cathedral, but it lasted more than that, due to the sheer number of people trudging through the streets. I saw Spanish, Chinese, and Malay Filipino walking side by side that night. It was a sight to behold, and one to chill the blood of even the most hardened atheists. Entering San Agustin was an experience unto itself; the patio of the church was literally jam-packed with devotees, praying on their knees, and waiting for their loved ones to come. Inside, the church was lit very somberly; but the Baroque splendor of this ancient church still shone, and stood out amidst the shadowy darkness. I saw many a child looking with eyes-wide open at the sorrowful images of saints in their gilded niches. It was like being transported back in time, like 'seeing a glimpse of heaven from purgatory', as a lady next to me described it.

It was in Chinatown, though, that I grasped just what this day meant for me, and for many more out there. As we entered Binondo church, where the first Filipino canonized saint Lorenzo Ruiz once served as sacristan, I was struck immediately by the sight of a group of penitents, fifty at least, walking to the main altar of the church. They were poor people-- barefoot, dirty, and obviously tired. Ahead of them were four boys-- three bearing wooden crucifixes, and another holding a processional garden torch. Behind them knelt the rest of the group, holding rosaries and prayer books in their hands, many with eyes caught in a mystic rapture, and many more caught in a wave of emotion as to make them tear up. For five minutes at least, they recited their prayers, to the amazement and astonishment of the other pilgrims, including yours truly. Afterwards, when they had finished their prayers, they were gone as quickly as they had entered the church. It was truly one of the most amazing things I had ever seen.

The only other church we visited which we had not visited before was San Sebastian church in Quiapo, Manila. It is notable as the sole all-steel Gothic(!!!) church in all of Asia, and is one of the most intriguing churches in all of Manila (until 1975, it remained closed to the public for all but a few days in the year). San Sebastian loomed before us, its tall spires framing the bright moon above; even from a distance, and while seated inside the car, one could see the sea of people making their way inside the church. Inside, San Sebastian was packed to the brim; it took us practically five minutes to cross from the vestibule to the nave, so many were making their devotions, and so many were venerating the image of the Nazarene and the Senor de Paciencia at the nave. The confessionals were all robed in purple, and had large crowds swelling at every point. Again there were the penitents, still barefoot, making their pilgrimage to this house of God, while the number of devotees venerating the two images stationed near the entrance of the church still grew with every passing minute. We left the church, exhausted, hassled, and most importantly, awed to our wildest wits.

Outside the church, it was a catastrophe. The already cramped streets were littered with refuse and garbage from the day (on mornings, this part of Quiapo becomes a wet market), a sight which contrasted sharply with the magnificence and splendor of the churches we visited. Yet in that hour, something within me understood something. Suddenly, everything made sense-- the garbage on the streets, the barefoot penitents, the bands of pilgrims, and the stripped altars. Suddenly, one could see: this night was, indeed, different from all other nights. The drama of the Passion had begun; the die has been cast, and the scenes which had been so familiar to us from the beginning repeat themselves, and we are transported back to the days of old, and I, at least, understood my place in the scheme of things; and that place is in the pews, grieving with the rest of humanity, and keeping vigil with Our Lord in the last hours before His execution. It would be better to say that I was bludgeoned with this truth than actually understanding it.

At 11pm, I finally got home, and with only a couple of minutes more, I once again hear, in my mind, these words: Why is this night different from every other night? And still, I cannot provide an answer, save a couple of ramblings and stories that try to approximate this single, supremely sublime piece wisdom: I kept watch with God at this night. That is why it is so different.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Altar of Repose

From Santo Domingo church, the Dominican mother church here in Manila. I had a very interesting Maundy Thursday, but right now, I am occupied by a lot of very time-consuming things. I'll post about it soon, probably on Easter Sunday.

Monday, March 17, 2008

This Kicks So Much 'Sass'

(I censored the un-Christian word above, to use a line from Ned Flanders).

The Iglesia ni Cristo are a local pseudo-Christian group that denies the divinity of Christ, the Holy Trinity, and pretty much standard Christian doctrine. They claim they are the one, true, church, and that their founder, the late Felix Ysagun Manalo, was the last true prophet of God ('sugo ng Diyos'), sent to re-establish the true church on earth after virtually disappearing in the supposed 'Great Apostasy' that occurred in the early years of Christianity. They have been accused of extremely fraudulent exegesis by many scholars and even brainwashing tactics (one of the features of their services is that you are given an 'attendance card' which you have to get signed on on Sundays and their other holy days; failure to do this warrants a visit to your home by their leaders). They are one of the fastest growing religious cults here in the Philippines, incidentally.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Crucified Frogs and Holy Mountains

One of the strangest superstitions I've read about happens every Good Friday in the island of Negros Occidental, here in the Philippines. It is said that Good Friday is the most auspicious day of the entire year to obtain power, blessings, and even strange abilities; it is a day when God Himself is seemingly 'dead', and the elements are at the behest of man to manipulate them to what he wills. To obtain a bountiful harvest, it is said that, on the precise moment when Our Lord is said to have died-- that is, 3pm, one must take a frog, and crucify it on a wooden board. The frog must imitate the position of Christ, with hands outstretched. This being done, a rain cloud will immediately form overhead, provided the ritual is done accordingly.

Another superstition native to the Philippines states that Good Friday is the day when new anting-antings-- amulets generally resembling sacramentals but which have strange, even occult symbols inscribed upon them-- are 'born'. To obtain one for yourself, stand under a banana tree, and again, wait for the magic hour; the 'heart' will eventually drop a fully-formed anting-anting, which is said to have numerous powers and effect many graces. Of course, grace, or grasya, as understood in the Philippine context usually meant a favor from the Divine.

Then there is also Mount Banahaw. Since the early part of the twentieth century, this so-called 'holy mountain' has been a pilgrimage site for legions and legions of believers, Catholic or otherwise. The story goes that an angel, or the Holy Ghost, appeared to a local hermit, and told him that the mountain just yonder will be the site of the New Jerusalem. Today, Mount Banahaw is home to numerous cults, too many and too fascinating for me to describe in one post. Some of these cults believe the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal, to be God himself; others worship an Old Mother type of figue, dressed in immaculate white robes and a ridiculously large triangle behind her head. She is, believe it or not, supposed to "God the Mother" or one of the multiple titles of the Blessed Virgin; she also says the "mass", either in archaic Tagalog or pig latin, ad orientem.

Many pilgrims choose to climb Mount Banahaw on foot. The pilgrims visit places like the Balbas ng Ama (Beard of the Father) and the Buhok ng Ina (Hair of the Mother), sacred springs and fountains and curtains of lichen that curiously resemble growths of hair, hence their names.

Good Friday in the Philippines is, most curiously, not a very Christ-centered event in the usual sense. Aside from the procession of the Santo Entierro, the image of the dead Christ, which happens to be a major event in some provinces akin to how the Quiapo processions are in the city, Good Friday seems to be 'devoid' of Him altogether. This is the day when demons run loose on the face of the earth, since there is no Christ to cast them back to Hell, and conversely, a day of great power as well. Indeed, it would seem as if the whole order of things were inverted on this day: God is dead, hell is triumphant, heaven weeps. Even today, there are still many families who forbid laughing, dancing, jumping, and even bathing altogether on Good Friday, as these may disturb the sleep of Christ.

What are we to make of this? Should we be worried? I guess it all depends on the viewpoint with which we see these things. For the Catholic convert, such a display of enthusiastic despair will definitely leave a scandalous impression. But for many who grew up immersed in the strange, enchanted world of Catholicism, such events will appear quite 'commonplace'. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that our modern preoccupation with liturgical purity is not very traditional at all. I say this, not to spite those who love our liturgy, but because for the better part of the last two thousand years, the liturgy was considered the domain of the clergy. The lay people thus had to contend themselves with something equally as magical, yet distinct from the official functions of the Church. Thus we have processions, and extra-liturgical acts such as the chanting of the Pasyon, brotherhoods of flagellants, men who have themselves crucified, and so on.

We have to remember that religion is primarily cultic, and only secondarily dogmatic. Worship, sacrifice, and ceremonies are, it can be argued, constitute a bigger part in our working definition of religion than creeds, beliefs, and polemics. In fact, one need not look too far to observe this phenomenon: visit any Mexican or Italian churches and note how the people behave. They stoop and cross before statues, kiss plaster feet, offer garlands of flowers, pin dollar bills onto a saint's breast, carry its bones on their shoulders, and kiss bloodstains, torn pieces of cloth, shards of scalp and bone and other such paraphernalia inside golden reliquaries. Suppose the iconoclasts had their way, and veneration eventually became consigned to the dust bin: would we then view these devotions as superstitions too?

Granted, the things I have mentioned above go beyond the mere realm of superstition, even crossing over into the realm of black magic. There is a reason why witches and ghouls and goblins are said to wander the world every Good Friday (as if Christ died every Passion Day; but that is something I'll tackle somewhere else). With the Great Hero down for the count, who is to stop the forces of darkness from doing their work? It is very striking that one of the most powerful ('literally' and symbolically) figures of Christ is the image of Him entombed in the sepulchre; it is the object of devotions of the populace during the Triduum, where thousands line up just to kiss its feet. Again, everything is reversed: the fallen become conquerors and the seemingly victorious are cast back into Hell, without them even knowing it. The folly of hell is revealed, and the Divine Wisdom reveals Itself, triumphant, a conquering hero Who has vanquished the night.

My point, basically, is that the things we believe are not just things to be read, as if the life of Christ were a purely textual event: it is not. Surprisingly, the naivete of the uneducated and the uncatechised show a fundamental rupture that we would otherwise not have seen: that the God-Man was, first and foremost, a God-Man. This is and was not a petty semantic formula, but a truth infinitely more profound than creation itself. It is, in a word, magical. I imagine this almost pagan notion does not sit very well with us today because we are too focused on OUR part of religion: the what and what not to do, the how to do, and so forth, that we forget God's part of the whole deal. Ultimately, crucifying frogs and anting-antings are just magnified superstitions; but whatever we make of it, let us ask ourselves if what we are following is actually a religion, or just a mystical book of etiquette.

Perhaps we're wondering, what's the difference? I think it is rather simple: a religion actually saves the sinner. An etiquette book merely gives one respectability. There is a world of a difference between the two.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Death Cart