An archipelago consisting of about 7, 100 islands, the Philippines rides astride the strategic crossroads of Asia. Because of its strategic geographic location, it is a melting pot of various cultures, a rich blend of the East and the West. Since the Philippines is made up of 81 provinces grouped together into 17 regions, with more than 175 ethnolinguistic groups, its cultural diversity has also given rise to regional variations of Holy Week observances.
Due to 333 years of Spanish rule, the country is the only predominantly Christian nation in Asia, with more than 86 per cent of the population belonging to the Catholic Church. About 6 per cent of the population belong to various nationalized Christian denominations while another 2 per cent adhere to various Protestant churches.
Because of its predominantly Catholic composition, the Philippines has a rich heritage of festivals that center on Jesus, Mary and the many saints of the Church.
Holy Week (Mahal na Araw in Pilipino; Semana Santa in Spanish) is a significant religious event in the country that begins on Palm Sunday (Linggo ng Palaspas in Pilipino; Domingo de Ramos in Spanish; when the blessing of palms is done at the Mass) and continues on through to Black Saturday. The culmination of this annual observance is Easter Sunday.
Spanish-influenced Catholic rituals such as processions, which have been syncretized with elements of pre-Hispanic beliefs are observed by many communities. Typically, during the Easter Triduum (Maundy Thursday until Black Saturday), businesses are closed for part or all of this period and many people go home to their home provinces. Local television and most radio stations either go off air or adjust their programming by airing programs attuned to the season, such as religious films and news coverage of various rites and services.
On Palm Sunday, churchgoers bring ornately woven palm fronts to church for blessing by the priest before or after the Mass. These are then brought home and placed on doors, windows and other areas of the house to help protect against evil spirits and avert lightning. Some communities holds a procession into the church before the Mass to re-enact the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Maundy Thursday (Huwebes Santo in Pilipino) is a public holiday marking the start of the Paschal Triduum. The Chrism Mass is held in the morning, especially in large dioceses and archdioceses. Many priests renew their vows on this day and the presiding bishop usually consecrates the Chrism, oil of catechumens and the oil for the sick after the homily. These oils are taken by priests to their respective parishes and stored for future use.
The main observance on Maundy Thursday is the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which usually includes a re-enactment of the Washing of the Feet of the Apostles. A procession of the Blessed Sacrament usually follows wherein it is placed in the Altar of Repose (which is separate from the Sanctuary where it usually reposes). Churches typically remain open until midnight for those who wish to venerate the Blessed Sacrament and avail of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In the course of Holy Week beginning Maundy Thursday, Filipinos usually observe one of the most important Holy Week traditions, which is the Visita Iglesia. In this observance, the faithful visit seven churches, praying the Way of the Cross inside or outside each church. The faithful may also pray before the Blessed Sacrament at the Altar of Repose.
The second public holiday for the week is Good Friday (Biyernes Santo). The day is observed with solemn street processions, the Way of the Cross, the re-enactment of the Seven Last Words of Jesus (Siete Palabras), the Veneration of the Cross and the Senakulo (Passion Play), which in some areas, have begun to be held on Palm Sunday. In some communities such as those in the province of Pampanga, processions include devotees who self-flagellate and sometimes even have themselves nailed to crosses as expressions of penance (practices which are done out of sheer private devotion and are not officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church).
The pabasa, or continuous chanting of the Pasyon or Passion narrative, usually concludes on Good Friday.
The highlight of Good Friday is the Santo Entierro (“holy interment”) wherein a statue of the dead Christ is processed around town. A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary dressed in black mourning clothes (the Mater Dolorosa) is traditionally the last image in the procession. In some communities, traditional pre-Christian funeral rites (e.g. washing the corpse, laying the body in state) are done. The procession of the Santo Entierro takes several stops, with incense being offered up and a crier turning towards the bier bearing the statue of Christ and shouting “Senor, Misericordia, Senor” (Lord, have mercy, Lord) to which the crowd responds, “Misericordia, Senor” (Mercy, Lord).
There are some taboos customarily observed on Good Friday, such as the avoidance of excessive noisemaking, and in older times, bathing (except for health reasons). These taboos are generally observed from 3:00 p.m., the hour of Jesus’ death. Children are also typically discouraged from playing outdoors out of reverence for Christ. A generally somber mood pervades this day and continues until Black Saturday. As an interesting side note, there is a Pilipino idiom attached to this day. ”Mukha kang Biyernes Santo” (literally translated as “You’ve a face like Good Friday”). It refers to a sad person’s demeanor resembling that of the suffering Christ.
Easter Sunday (Linggo ng Pagkabuhay) is marked with joyous celebrations beginning with the traditional Easter Vigil and the Salubong, which depicts the apocryphal reunion of Christ and the Virgin Mary following the Resurrection. Statues of both Jesus and the Virgin Mary are borne in two separate processions (the one with the image of Jesus is composed of all males while the one with the image of the Virgin Mary is composed of all females) and converge at an area outside the church called the Galilea (“Galilee”). At the meeting point, a child dressed as an angel removes the black veil of Mary’s statue, symbolizing the abrupt end to her grieving. The Mater Dolorosa is thus transformed into Nuestra Senora de Alegria (Our Lady of Joy) amid chants of the Regina Coeli, the pealing of bells, brass bands playing and fireworks.
Due to the period of American colonial rule following the Philippine-American War (1899 – 1902), the Easter Bunny and Easter Egg Hunting have made its way into Philippine Easter observances, but mostly in major urban areas where big commercial establishments such as malls often hold such events.
All in all, the observance of Lent and Holy Week showcases the deep faith of the Filipino people across a broad spectrum that highlights the country’s cultural diversity.