Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Lenten traditions

This is my column today.

I’ve been abstaining from meat every Friday since the onset of Lent.  I must admit though that the abstinence was prompted less by religious reasons.  Although I am critical of the institutional biases of the Catholic Church, I am a practicing Catholic and I observe a number of religious traditions. But in the interest of honesty, I will admit that I haven’t been eating meat not only on Fridays but most days of the week because I need to lose weight drastically for health reasons.  It’s just convenient to do so now because it’s also Lent.

The point I am trying to make is that it seems most of us now blend observance of religious traditions with practical reasons.  Many among us observe religious traditions when it is convenient to do so.  If it’s inconvenient, then we make up reasons to make it so.

Before anyone scolds me for making generalizations based on personal circumstances, let me illustrate with a few more examples.

I was in Noveleta, Cavite last Sunday for Palm Sunday where a good friend of mine has continued a family tradition that’s now more than 50 years old.  They hold a pabasa in front of their house starting at sundown of Palm Sunday until sunset of Maundy Monday.  This was the third year in a row that my friends and students trooped to Noveleta for the pabasa and it has become an annual reunion of sorts.  I suspect that most of us embarked on the long drive every year with the reunion in mind more than the pabasa. 

And since we knew that a mass was going to be celebrated prior to the start of the pabasa, many among us purposely didn’t go to mass anymore last Sunday.  So there was another reason to go which it made it more convenient.

I am sure that many of my friend’s kith and kin that came and went last Sunday at various points of the night dropped by not just for the pabasa but to keep in touch with family members as well.   I wouldn’t be surprised if some went there to transact business with someone who was also going to be there. 

A friend of mine makes it a point to do the Visita Iglesia around the churches in Laguna because it allows her the opportunity to visit some relatives in some towns of the province as well as gives her and her family the chance to savor native delicacies of the various towns they visit.  The trip becomes some kind of a gourmet experience as they load up on all kinds of kakanin and food specialties of the various towns along the way.  But yes, they do the Stations of the Cross in each of the 14 churches they visit. 

Some politicians make it a point to be seen publicly at the religious rituals of Holy Week I suspect more of an effort to earn brownie points not necessarily from God but from the faithful.  I don’t presume to know what is truly in their hearts of course, but I wouldn’t dare suspect them of other motives if only they try to be inconspicuous.  But no, most of our politicians have this habit of announcing their presence in various annoying ways. 

Last year, I took offense at a candidate for a congressional seat in Manila because he came to the Malate Church for Visita Iglesia in his trademark campaign get-up and arrived with a full coterie of campaigners who distributed leaflets.  To be fair, the leaflets contained what could have passed off as inspirational messages if not for the candidate’s name at the bottom as the author of the Lenten reminder.

The Holy Week is supposed to be the most significant season in the Christian calendar.  When I was a child growing up in the provinces, the traditions that surrounded the commemoration of Holy Week were quite stringent including making sure we were absolutely quiet on Good Friday.  Some families even forbade bathing on Good Friday.  Fasting was not a choice, it was required.  The Stations of the Cross were conducted barefoot and there were strict rules about gender that were followed in certain processions (only females were allowed to walk behind the image of the grieving Mother Mary).

Today, religious traditions have taken on a more practical bent giving way to a number of accommodations.  It’s like faith has become a little more flexible and subject to negotiation.  I haven’t made up my mind as to whether this is a good thing or not.  I am not exactly a purist and there’s a part of me that wants to give people the benefit of the doubt – at least they still observe traditions.  On the other hand, I do think that the bedrock of faith is precisely unconditional submission.

I will leave it up to you, dear readers, to reflect on this; as I will in my own way during this season of reflection.

While we are at it, perhaps I might also point out that certain traditions may have stood the test of time but have not been totally spared from modern day influences.  I thought that the pabasa was still one of these traditions that have remained intact both in form and content.  But apparently not based on what I experienced last Sunday.  Let me stress that the pabasa I witnessed took place in Noveleta Cavite – a town that may be near Metro Manila but still largely provincial and was participated in by “older” people - definitely not members of generations X or Y.

In the first two hours or so of singing the life and passion of Christ, the group stuck to the traditional pasyon tune, which really sounded like a chant with a little melody thrown in.  In the past, I’ve always marveled at the extreme patience of the people who would participate in the pabasa because I figured having to sing hundred stanzas of text in the same boring tune was sheer torture.  Then again, that probably is the point anyway – it’s not meant to be enjoyed.   But on second thought, why not?  Where exactly is it written that the recitation of the life and passion of Christ should only be read and sung in the most somber and boring way? 

Imagine my surprise then when after about three hours of warbling the same old repetitive tune, the group shifted melodies and started singing the pasyon to the tune of Acin Cu Pung Singsing.  When I left, they were singing the pasyon to another tune, this time a song straight from my childhood.  The title of the song escapes me now, but the lyrics went “a kiss a kiss a kiss me in the morning, a kiss a kiss a kiss me in the night.” If memory serves me right, this was a song a younger Vilma Santos would sing while cavorting with Bubot Mortiz. 

My students reacted with curiosity:  Could the lyrics of the pasyon be sung to the tune of Ang Huling El Bimbo?  I am not sure it could be – but am not sure it’s necessarily a bad idea.  If that’s what will get the younger set to participate in these religious tradition, then why not?  But then again, I can already hear some people gnashing their teeth and complaining about how we are bastardizing traditions

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