Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Santo Entierro

It was close to midnight when we arrived at our parish.The light rain had just ceased, and the sepulchral silence of Good Friday hung about the night like an invisible cloak. Above, the moon glowed eerily behind the clouds, casting a corpse-like pallor on the earth below. The church was dark inside, but there were still people praying the rosary or just sitting contemplatively inside. I caught a boy I went to school with give his girlfriend a slight nuzzle on the cheek, while outside, in the church's small garden, where plaster statues of Our Lady of La Salette and several other saints were illuminated by candlelight people milled about. A few penitents meditated upon their serene faces.

"When you see the Lord, remember to kiss His wounds," my aunt whispered to my seven year old cousin. She gently put on a small lace veil on her head, the kind that covered just  the crown of the head, and went forward, in silence, to the bier ahead. There, the image of the Dead Christ lay in repose. Locked inside an elaborate wooden box with glass panels all four sides, it was a life-size depiction of the Lord, His eyes half-closed, and whatever trace of the violence done to His sacred body hidden under a pall of violet silk embroidered with gold. On the Lord's breast lay a silver book, and on top, an effigy of a Lamb, also in silver, a cross tucked under its bent legs. A silver crown of thorns lay in front of the book, and within the crown, were three silver nails each the size of a paring knife. I gazed at the Dead Christ for awhile, feeling the weight of a tradition hundreds of years old sink into me, albeit in such a parish as suburban as ours. We missed the procession of the bier earlier in the day; such events always necessitated a marching band and the entirety of the Catholic community's participation. My grandfather thought it was bad luck to miss it at worst, and an impolite omission at best. "Mama, Jesus is inside the coffin, I can't kiss Him." My aunt shushed the boy, and, with a gesture, urged him to do as  she did. She produced a white handkerchief from her pocket, a rather frilly, lacy thing, probably with her name stitched in a fancy cursive letters. She took the cloth, and dabbed one kind on her lips; it was a kiss. "Do this after me," she said to the boy. Gently, delicately, she wiped the handkerchief on the glass sides of the wooden bier, every now and then pausing to cross  herself with the cloth; she did this for three minutes, before telling my cousin to pull up his shirt. Then, she took the  handkerchief and rubbed it on his small, fat back, before ruffing his hair with it. "Francis, 'wag kang malikot!". She issued a stern warning to my little cousin to keep still; life any boy his age, I imagine he wanted to explore the darkened church in the hopes of finding some adventure, or an escape from the dreary silence.

My dad and I followed next, with my grandfather teaching Francis some last minute catechism. I think he was disappointed that the boy had started jumping around in church, and in front of the Dead Christ even, committing a grave faux pas which would have merited the belt in his days. My dad and I stood and silence in front of the image for awhile, but lacking the handkerchiefs to partake of the blessed contagion, we were content to simply kiss the glass sides of the bier. A strong wind blew inside the church, carrying with it the sweet smell of lagrimas, a fragrant flower in the Philippines often associated with funerals. I took note of the arrangement of the Dead Christ one last time, before noticing a purple band tied around His jaw. Such things were often used in the old days to keep the mouth of the deceased shut, although for what purpose, I still do not know (perhaps to keep the soul from being claimed by the Devil?). Our devotions done, we retired momentarily to the pew, to sit and meditate. Behind me, I could hear the lachrymose singing of at least two old ladies, singing, perhaps, a song of lament for the Lord.

It was decided that we would pray the Via Crucis, which I was to lead. I pulled out a copy of the prayerbook I had gotten from school. It was a neat little book which contained Latin and English prayers, and some reflections from the Opus Dei founder St. Josemaria Escriva. "We adore You, O Christ, and we bless You, because by Your holy cross You have redeemed the world." Forty minutes later, we ended our prayer; Francis was already asleep, my grandfather was irascible, and the church, by then, had already completely emptied. Only the night watchman remained, who sat in the back pew of the church, half-awake and half-asleep, but thankfully not snoring.

Inside the church, the candlelight still burned brightly before the bier of the Lord. We came forward again, as a family, to give Him our farewells. My aunt shook Francis from his sleep in order to impress upon him a final act of piety. We knelt for awhile, and for a moment, it looked as if she were banging her forehead on the base of the bier, as if the bier and its Contents were some sort of scapegoat, and that it was not too late to rush the absolution of her sins post factum the Crucifixion. Under the light of two, tacky incandescent bulbs inside the bier, I observed, for the first time, the hand of the Crucified, which the pall had not covered. The hand was locked as if in the early stages of rigor mortis, with a rather gruesome circular indentation at the center, where the nail was hammered into place, and later pulled out. The level of detail was, to say the least, almost fetishistic, and perhaps, most disturbingly, one could even discern a small, raised, ring of bloodied flesh that emanated from the center of the wound, simulating the disturbance of the divine flesh when the nails were pulled out. I pondered over this detail for a moment, lost in contemplation.

Then, my aunt moved to the foot of the bier, and saw that the glass had been unlocked, making it possible to kiss the feet of the Lord. Slowly, she bent her back forward, and pressed her lips on the wounds at the center of the feet, mimicking the same level of gory detail of the hand. This time she dipped the tip of the handkerchief into the wound, in imitation of soaking up real blood, and pressed it to her lips, before signing her forehead, lips, and breast. "By the sign of this holy cross, deliver us from our enemies, You, who are our God." And again, she smothered Francis with the cloth, who, by then, had already grown tired and sleepy. Finally, we left the church. I said goodbye  to the boy from school, who had apparently noticed me on my way out and called me out. He gave me a wink, for what, I don't know. I turned to look back once more at the empty church, while the Dead Christ rested serenely inside His bier.

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