AVERNES, France—When I moved to France in 2005, I didn’t expect anything closely resembling the practices of the Semana Santa of my childhood in the Philippines. But without fail, every year in March or April, as though set off by an internal spiritual clock, I hear familiar strains of pasyon in my head.
Once, my husband saw my reading the Pasiong Mahal as some kind of plea perhaps, and he invited me to go to a nearby church. We were immediately gripped by the mournful ambience within. The only light came from the candles. It felt like we were attending a meeting of a secret society. Or like going to the wake of Christ, except that we were the only mourners. And I was there with only half my heart.
Many years later, I still contemplate the profound ways I’ve been shaped (some may say stultified?) by the rituals of Semana Santa, particularly the reading of pasyon. With no province to go to or doting grandparents to visit when I was a child growing up in Manila, Holy Week was the high point of my otherwise unpunctuated young life. The penitential season provided some strange excitement, the consoling summer flavor.
But it may also well be that since my Holy Week memories are mother-bound, they’ve become so precious. Mother it was who took me with her to neighborhood “readings”—pabasa—even before I started going to school. My motivations were understandably farthest from religious. I just wanted to be with my mother. I wanted to sing—and could sing well, thank you very much—anticipating the words that I couldn’t read yet.
And I wanted to eat. I always had my eye on lumpiang sariwa and ube halaya. Seeing how people would come in right around the time food was served, I knew I wasn’t the only one with questionable motives.
The neighborhood pabasa always followed the same schedule: Saturday night until Sunday, Aling Ebeng’s; Tuesday night until Wednesday, Tiyang Tessie’s; Wednesday night until Thursday, Mamang Trining’s. Sometimes the Holy Family Chapel on our street would host one, and a public address system was used to amplify the singing.
Mother drank salabat or kept a piece of ginger in her mouth. At times she would be the lead singer, setting the tune or the melodic pattern. The singing style varied. I much preferred old people’s mournful or melancholic tunes. Adolescent readers were singing hurriedly, more hurriedly as they turned the pages, using the strains of modern music. It didn’t really matter as long as the words were strictly adhered to.
The street crowd would start thinning out on Tuesday, Martes Santo. On Good Friday, Viernes Santo, all activities dropped. There were no radio and television programs. No newspapers. We weren’t technologically equipped. We didn’t even have a phone line. Fr. Sonny Ramirez pleaded to everyone to stay home and do penance. Don’t go to Baguio, he’d say, teary-eyed. There were those who did, or flocked to the beaches.
We weren’t that kind of people. We didn’t even think we were enduring the hottest days, the silence, the lack of things to do. The fabric of our world didn’t encourage complaining or critical scrutiny of our lot or of others who had more means. After all, we didn’t know any of those people. We contentedly stayed cooped up in our houses for seemingly endless, scorching days, reading or playing sungka.
Children were forbidden to play the usual raucous games. No laughing, not much talking, and if we did, only in whispers. If we refused to obey, Mother would chide us that Jesus was dead yet we were behaving like the Jews: “Sige, patay si Kristo. Magsa-hudyo kayo!”
My brother, Kuya Nonoy, and our cousin, Kuya Ramon, made wooden crosses and took turns playing Christ. Otherwise, they’d be out on the street waiting for barefoot, hooded penitentes whipping their backs bloody. I’d stay away from this gruesome display of faith. Mother said it was fake blood.
Mother had this panata on Good Friday to offer prayers and sampaguita flowers to the Santo Entierro, dead Christ, in two churches in Paco, Manila. The panata, a solemn promise made to God, was passed on to her by our Lola Miguela. I went with her until I was old enough to have my own Holy Week activities with friends. We went first to Iglesia Parroquial de San Fernando de Dilao (San Fernando de Dilao Parish, or simply Paco Church) and we gave our sampaguitas to people decorating the casket of Nuestro Santo Padre Jesús del Sepulcro. Then we’d walk to the Parish of the Holy Sepulchre, an Aglipayan Church.
The heat was at its most pitiless on this day, but the church teemed with devotees, speaking in murmurs, patiently awaiting the siete palabras before the procession. The dramatic reading of Christ’s seven last words to accompany one’s Lenten reflection was done in Filipino, which made it more heartfelt for the churchgoers. We would all be looking up at the image of the crucified Christ at the altar, imagining all the other details of the original scene.
Mother was adamant that I keep my eyes on Christ’s image because, as I discovered the first time she took me with her, Christ’s head literally moved and bowed (with sound effects of thunder and lightning!) after the final word, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Were some people really crying, their heads bowed in repentance? I was immensely impressed by this spectacle.
My friends and I, all teenagers, participated in the Good Friday procession in Santa Ana, Manila. There were lit candles, heartfelt songs and prayers, and fervent wishes to see our crushes among the crowd.
Later on, as older working women, some of us married with kids, we went to different churches (Visita Iglesia) on Maundy Thursday, Jueves Santo, and rewarded ourselves with spicy sardines in olive oil and rice after all the walking. By then, our experience of Holy Week had already changed. We didn’t “suffer through” in silence anymore (Betamax and eventually the Internet changed all that).
I don’t remember much of the Holy Weeks of my older years before I migrated to France. Had I turned into a Baguio or beach person by then? Only the Holy Weeks of my childhood summers with Mother are deeply etched in my memory.
But back to the Pasiong Mahal The title of the one I sang with Mother is Awit at Salaysay ng Pasiong Mahal ni Hesukristong Panginoon Natin Sukat Ipag-alab ng Puso ng Sinumang Babasa. I can’t say my child’s heart was inflamed or my child’s mind could always make heads or tails of what I was reading, but I just carried on until even complicated Tagalog words had happily settled in my brain. Words like tibobos, palamara, tampalasan, gunamgunam, buktot, kapagkaraka, dalita, hilahil.
I wonder sometimes to what extent I was nourished by the sustained chanting of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection all those years ago. Of course, I’ve read many other books since then. But was pasyon somehow responsible for the sure ripening of my own magandang loob, assuming I have one? Think about Reynaldo Ileto’s idea of pasyon as providing a framework to Filipino peasants (with their “reformed inner selves”) to conceptualize their liberation, as inspiring revolution.
I cannot blithely assume pasyon has made me a good person. Am I a certain way (may busilak at matibay na loob, perhaps) because of it? Here’s something I know: His book, which may or may not have inspired a revolution, is the first most important one among the many books I’ve read in my life. The high truths (Take up your cross? Don’t resist your fate?) it has taught me subconsciously are probably still helping me in the tiny, everyday revolutions I spark. I also know that pasyon was my humble yet vital companion to learning how to read.
Lastly, and most affectingly, I go back to pasyon and my heart is warm and full as a child again. Because Mother’s presence becomes more poignantly felt.