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Holy Week Traditions in the Philippines: Imitating Christ

Holy Week in the Philippines, especially in the provinces, is full of Christ-like imagery.
IMAGE Alex R. Castro
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Holy Week in the Philippines is always an astounding sight: Our streets and roads, especially in the provinces of Central Luzon, are crammed with processions of both saints and sinners. Lifelike, richly dressed  figures of wooden and ivory saints, borne on brightly lit carriages come out from old homes, followed by a retinue of candle-bearing devotees. On the same road, one also meets penitents walking in abject misery, stripped of their clothes, covered with grime and dust, with bodies bruised and bloodied, providing a gruesome contrast to our annual Lenten scenes.

THE WAY OF THE CROSS. Holy Week in the Philippines usually features flagellants making their way down a country road, while flogging themselves, an enactment of the Lord’s passion. Flagellant processions began in Europe, spread to Spain, and reached our shores in the 17th century. Ca. 1920.

IMAGE: Alex R. Castro
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Though starkly different, these Lenten practices, introduced by Spain in the days of colonization, have become deeply seated in our culture and originally stemmed from a single purpose—as acts of penitence and punishments, or penitensya, meted out by the church for clergy and laity alike. Other examples of Church-imposed religious penance included fasting, tears of contrition, self-mortification, and flagellation. From the pasyon to the senakulo, these have become Holy Week traditions.

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY. Flagellation and self-mortification were a form extreme penance and punishment imposed by the Church, practices which were readily embraced by Filipinos. Ca. 1915.

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Holy Week traditions in the Philippines have a long history far ahead of the Spanish colonization. The earliest documented flagellant processions in Europe occurred in Italy around 1260-1261. These were believed to be associated with the intensely dramatic sermons of the Franciscan preacher from Perugia, Fra Rainerio Frasani.

Flagellant movements spread throughout Europe in the 14th century, thanks to organized religious cofradias (confraternities), and processions were observed in France, Germany, Austria, and the Low Countries. During the medieval period, these processions were timed directly with periods of social stress, such as plagues, drought, and war.

As early as the 4th century, the Bishop of Barcelona, San Paciano (d. 392), advocated public self-mortification and self-flogging as a form of penance, preferably during Semana Santa. Thus, when Spain expanded its frontiers to include Latin America and the Pacific, its missionaries, particularly the Jesuits and Franciscans, introduced what would eventually become Holy Week traditions in the Philippines. They readily embraced the bloody rituals as part of the new religion and as a way of purification beginning in the 17th century. 

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BLOOD COMPACT. By participating in His pain, “flagelantes”  believe they are a comforting the Lord Jesus, thus capturing this spirit of oneness, in pain and sorrow. Here, flagellants enter a makeshift visita or chapel to pause for prayers. Ca. 1915.

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Filipinos adopted many elements from the rituals. Early on, they were called flagelantes,  penitentes, kristos, and in Pampanga, where the Holy Week traditions continue to be intensemagdarame. The term has its roots in the Kapampangan word dame (Tagalog, damay), which means “to volunteer to share in someone else’s sorrow.”

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These magdarames whip themselves or carry crosses not just to imitate Christ, but to be one with him in his agony. By taking part in His pain, they believe  they are comforting him, thus capturing this spirit of empathetic oneness, in pain and sorrow. This was more in keeping with the impassioned preachings of San Vicente Ferrer (1350-1419), a Dominican priest with an early following in the Philippines, who exhorted crowds to follow the supreme model of Christ’s penitence.

Nowadays, this Philippine Holy Week tradition, however, is done for a variety of reasons: of fulfilling a vow, a panataa solemn promise made to God—in gratitude for answered prayers and for favors still waiting for divine intercession: a plea for miraculous healing, for continuing a family tradition, or even a form of rite of passage for young lads.

MASKING PAIN. A native flagellant, called “magdarame” in Pampanga, is shown wearing a cloth hood, with a korona of twisted leaves and brambles. Ca. 1930s.

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IMAGE: Alex R. Castro

Like their European counterparts, Filipino penitentes also walked barefoot and wore hooded masks, locally called “kapirosas,” from the Spanish “capirote, a type of hat used in religious confraternities. The hood is held on the head with a crown of twisted vines, branches, or leaves.

However, they have dispensed with the sack cloth tunics with openings at the back to permit whipping, by going shirtless, wearing rolled-up pants, their thighs and legs tightly bound with knotted ropes to impede blood circulation and add further pain. A piece of cloth is tied around the waist to catch their blood and sweat. Performed until today, it is one of the most common Holy Week traditions in the Philippines. In Kalayaan, Laguna, the shirtless flagellants wear the colorful and distinctive “haplit”—skirts and hats made of palm leaves and trimmed with flowers. 

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OPEN OLD WOUNDS. A self-flogger has his back incised with small cuts made by beating paddle called “panabad” lined with shards of sharp glass. To draw blood, the flagellant whips his back with a “burilyo.” Ca. 1915.

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The instruments of torture were also inspired by the Spanish “mano de rodezuela,a spiked short wooden or hemp-handled whip capable of drawing copious quantities of blood from the body, thus providing quite a visceral spectacle for onlookers.

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CUTS LIKE A KNIFE. Instead of a paddle, a sharp knife is used to make the preliminary cuts on the flagellant’s skin, that are then opened through continuous whipping. Ca. 1930s.

  

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In this Holy Week tradition, the local flagellum is called bulyos (Tagalog) or burilyus (Kapampangan)—made of cylindrical bamboo sticks bundled into a cord of braided cotton or abaca strings. The cord enables flagellants to reach the macerated section of his back, that is incised beforehand with a panabad, a paddle lined with rows of sharp glass shards. Otherwise, a plain razor blade will do, often administered by a berdugo or a mananatak.

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WHIP IT GOOD!  The “mamalaspas” sheds blood by repeatedly flogging his back with the burilyos whip. Water is splashed on his back to prevent clotting. The more blood shed, the better. Ca. 1915. 

 

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To draw blood, the flagellant flogs himself repeatedly with the bulyos. Such whip-lashing flagellant is called mamalaspas ("self-floggers") in Pampanga, but other kinds are known in Central Luzon provinces.

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There are the mamusan krus, or "cross bearers," who either carry wooden crosses on one shoulder or are strapped to the crossbar itself with arms roped at both ends. Crosses may be of bamboo as in the old days, or heavy banana trunks, wood planks, and portions of electric posts.

TAKING UP HIS CROSS. Cross-bearers either carry crosses on their shoulders, or have their extended arms bound to the crossbar. Early crosses were made up of bamboo or heavy banana trunks. Ca. 1920s.

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Attired in the robes of the Nazarene, they walk around town beginning in the morning and ending by early afternoon, followed by their aides or “sunod,” who provide both help and hapless beatings with a whip.

Other flagellants fling their bodies violently to the ground, rolling over sharp rocks and stones in the process. Called magsalibatbat ("tumblers") in Pampanga, and bartikalista in Zambales, the Philippine Holy Week tradition is also known in Laguna as tinggulong.

ROCKS AND ROLL. A type of flagellant—called magsalibatbat or bartikalista—inflicts pain on his body by dropping on the ground and rubbing his body on the rocks while writhing and rolling, a ritual known as “tinggulong” in Laguna. Ca. 1920s. 

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Here, the penitente, after walking some distance, drops and rolls and writhes on the scorching hot road of sharp stones. He assumes the form of a cross by spreading his arms and is whipped repeatedly on his behind by his aides.

TAKING UP HIS CROSS. Cross-bearers either carry crosses on their shoulders, or have their extended arms bound to the crossbar. Early crosses were made up of bamboo or heavy banana trunks. Ca. 1920s.

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Perhaps the most riveting Holy Week tradition in the Philippines is the ultimate act of following Christ’s passion: the re-enactment of an actual crucifixion led by zealous flagellants on Good Friday, a gory ritual that has put Pampanga on the map since its start in the 1950s. The first such documented flagellant to have himself nailed on the cross was Arsenio Añoza (b.1926/ d.1993) of Betis, a casual employee of the Bureau of Public Highways. In 1961, he had himself crucified as an unsettling climax of a Passion play or Via Crucis.

CRUCIFY HIM! A flagellant is tied on a cross in a symbolic crucifixion on Good Friday. Ca. 1950s. 

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“With one crucifixion, I considered my sins to have been washed away. Now I do this to so that people will be reminded of what Christ went through,” Añoza said. This Holy Week tradition requires being dressed in the manner of Christ: Añoza was crucified using four-inch nails on both hands and feet, and left to hang for five minutes in front of gawking folk devotees. Though he felt pain as the nails were driven into his flesh, he bore no scars after his wounds were healed.

The record for having the most number of crucifixions during Holy Week in the Philippines, however goes to construction worker Ruben Enaje, who had himself nailed to a cross beginning in 1986 in Cutud, San Fernando, as a form of thanksgiving for surviving an accidental fall from a building. He has been crucified for 32 times, as of Holy Week 2018.

LENTEN CLEANSING. A flagellant trudges through the dusty barrio roads, with his “sunod” or an assistant who follows him while praying the 15 mysteries of the Rosary. Note the gawking American tourists with hats. Ca. 1920s.

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But Holy Week traditions in the Philippines are not limited to the male folk. Women, too, have had themselves crucified, like Lucia Reyes of Hagonoy, Bulacan, dressed in Nazarene robes and a kapok wig, had both her feet nailed to the cross several times. She often goes in a trance in such instances. Reyes believes that the bloodier the crucifixion, the more she is cleansed of sins, a belief rooted among humble rural folks who regard sacrifices such as fasting, prayer, or abstinence as too mild. Thus, only the extreme imitation of the Passion under the searing heat of the sun can rid them of their evil.

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Though being nailed on the cross may seem archaic, this Holy Week tradition has been picking up in the Philippines. In more recent times, more and more people are drawn into this bloody rite—to include whole familiesbrothers, sisters, wives, and friendswho accompany the penitent as they intone prayers, whipping them to inflict more pain, propping them up when tired, providing water when thirsty, and taking occasional photos for posterity, and perhaps, a proof of his machismo.

SORE, BUT SANCTIFIED. A weary flagellant wraps up his day-long walk of pain and faith with a bath in a river to wash his wounds and hurry up his body’s healing. Ca. 1920s. 

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In Mabalacat, Pampanga,  the Holy Week practice of pamagdarame is organized with clockwork efficiency. On Viernes Santo, hordes of “magdarame” gather in the churchyard for initial mass blood-letting, before they begin their walk of faith, garbed in similar Nazareno robes, equipped with professionally made crosses, all uniformly painted with their designated barangay chapter.

The savage Philippine Holy Week tradition however, ends in much the same way—by a river, a stream, or the communal town poso—where welts are scrubbed, wounds are bound, and traces of blood washed away. The flagellant then gets his just reward; in the past, a drink of sarsaparilla to replenish lost energy would suffice. Nowadays, the modern penitent prefers to quaff bottles of ice-cold Red Horse beer.

Times may have changed, but religious rituals, especially Holy Week traditions in the Philippines, endure. The belief in penance and salvation remains, and many hardcore folk devotees steeped in the practices of their colonizers adhere to divergent ways to achieve them. But to flagellants, the only sure way is to be unified with Christ in his sufferings, that is possible only through an extreme display of physical mortification.

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As Añoza put it: “If, once a year, the people can see a fellow man willing to show themin the fleshwhat Christ went through, then they will derive greater inspiration and merit from the Holy Week.” 

Bloody, gory, and morbid as it may seem, the ways of the flagellant continue to persist during Holy Week in the Philippines despite the Catholic church’s effort to suppress such cultural rituals. It is a penitent’s direct response to Jesus’ challenge to come and literally take up His Cross, lending meaning and support to the claim—no pain, no gain.

 

SOURCES:

Webster,  Susan V., Art and Ritual in Golden-Age Spain, Princeton University Press, 1998.

“Folksy, Faithful and True”, Singsing Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 1, Center for Kapampangan Studies, Holy Angel University.

“Penitencia”, Sunday Times Magazine, 15 April 1962, p. 10-11

Pageantry and Penance, Sunday Times Magazine. 7 April, 1963. P 24

Pope, Jean. “Small Town Crucifixion”, Sunday Time Magazine. 24 April 1966. Pp. 34-36.

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“The Way of the Flagellants”,  Sunday Times Magazine, April 1968. pp. 34

Zialcita, “Fernando N. “Popular Interpretations of the Passion of Christ”, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ateneo de Manila University

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