'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.