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.

No comments: