Meaningful holy week

My March 29, 2015 column.
Today is Palm Sunday, which announces the start of Holy Week, supposedly the most solemn week in the Catholic calendar.  When I was a child, this time of the year meant total deprivation from most of my favorite things and activities as a form of sacrifice.  I still like to think that most Filipinos do try to still find deeper meaning in the observance of the Semana Santa even if most of us, particularly the younger set, do see it as opportune time to hie off to some vacation place, and to party like there’s no tomorrow.  It is a matter of public record that the Holy Week is the top peak season for vacation spots such such as Baguio, Puerta Galera and Boracay.
I’ve always made it a point to spend the week in the national capital after experiencing in the early nineties what I thought were the most excruciating 16 hours of my life crammed into a highway along with 20 million others all trying to get to some destination up north.  The whole ordeal reminded me of what salmon fishes have to go through during their migration from the ocean towards upper reaches of rivers in order to spawn on gravel beds.  I understand the situation has only worsened since then as more and more people join the annual exodus out of the Metro at this time.  But then again, it is the Holy Week and some kind of sacrifice is required so many must think of the whole experience as part of their penitence.
I say this with all sincerity and earnestness:  Metro Manila is the best place to be during the Holy Week.  It is the only time when the metro is less congested - there is less traffic, pollution, noise, and yes, less temptation as most bars and malls are closed.  In addition, the variety of choices available for those who wish to attend religious activities is also quite rich since Metro Manila has the highest density of churches in this country.  For instance, one can do as many rounds of the Visita Iglesia as one wished. 
Of course if one truly wants to see elaborate observances of the lenten activities such as spectacular processions and rituals, one will have to go to certain provinces.  The good news is that a good number of them are near the Metro and if one plans the trips carefully, traffic and the other aggravations can be avoided.  For example, anyone who wants to witness the processions in any of the old towns in Laguna should prepare to set out very early on Good Friday and plan to return back late evening to avoid the traffic rush.  The towns of Pakil and Paete and San Pablo City have some of the most breathtaking Good Friday processions that I have witnessed.  Religious families in these places are known for pulling all the stops to ensure that the images and statues of the saint that they keep as family benefactor or protector take pride of place during the procession. 
For the most colorful and theatrical salubong (meeting of the risen Christ and His grieving mother), one will have to hie off to nearby Angono Rizal east of the metro.  Angono is renowned for culture and arts and has produced two national artists—Lucio San Pedro for music and Botong Franciso for visual arts—and a community of other great artists.  The salubong in Angono is unique as it involves the whole community in a celebration of replete with pageantry and religious fervor.
From Angono, one can pass by Antipolo, which used to be the top pilgrimage destination before Manaoag in Pangasinan.  On Good Friday, hundreds of thousands of young people still converge in the Cathedral of  the Nuestra Senora de la Paz y Buen Viaje (Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage), trudging on foot from various parts of the city.  Unfortunately, the tradition has been getting bad rap lately due to the presence of gangs and unruly groups who see the pilgrimage more as a rite of passage than as a religious activity.
What I like best about doing the Visita Iglesia in Metro Manila on Maundy Thursday is that churches make it a point to come up with unique and creative altars of repose in an effort to heighten spiritual reflection.  In some churches, they even move the altar to an open area and create a garden setting to accommodate more people and perhaps to provide variety.  It’s a thoughtful gesture, really, because visiting eight to fourteen churches can be quite taxing; a little change in the ambience can do wonders to lift a tired spirit.  Unfortunately, the whole experience is often marred by people whose main goal it seems in doing the Visita Iglesia is to take pictures of the various altars, or worse, to take selfies or groufies with the altars as background.  
Consumerist touches will continue to alter the way we observe traditions, including those associated with the Holy Week.  But I guess what is truly important is what is in people’s hearts; even more important, we can all take comfort in the fact that the traditions continue to be observed even in the midst of rapid changes.


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