A Pagan Passion

Filipinos celebrate Holy Week with a pagan passion. On Holy Monday eve, under a sky the color of congealed blood, barefoot men drag a dark-wood image of the Cross-bearing Christ through streets smoky with candle-flame in old Manila's worker-district of Quiapo. Bigger than life, the baroque Black Nazarene crossed the perilous Pacific in a galleon from Spanish Mexico over 200 years ago. Gaunt and wracked with pain, a crown of silver thorns on its brow, it wears purple garments hemmed with gold. Women in purple gowns, with wreaths of vine on their heads, follow the Christ, jostling to kiss its musk scented feet.

Philippine Catholicism disdains the bland, sweet myth of the Nativity - preferring the stronger emotions of the Passion and the Resurrection. Christmas is an American, cultural import, laden with overtones of commerce. Lent is taut, austere, inexorable - satisfying the tragic sense of peasant folk still living close to the cycle of the seasons.

As Wednesday brings down the searing heat of summer the whole earth writhes under the white-hot sky. The warm wind blows scented with withered herbs and ripening grain. The odor of Cuaresma, the old people call it, sniffing the air in anticipation.

In many regions, the peasants still come in water-buffalo carts from their farms to spend the holiday with their landlords. Beside the patron's house is built a little chapel of bamboo and palm leaf; inside it is set up a little altar. Readers take turns chanting the Passion, reciting rhymed verses from ancient texts in the local dialects. This recitation goes on all day and through much of the night, the mournful voices rising and falling like the tide.

In many other ways is the martyrdom at Golgotha objectified. In some small towns, morality plays are still enacted around the Agony in the Garden and the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. Again and again Pontius Pilate washes his hands. The fearsome Jews scourge the Savior at the pillar. And then he stumbles his way up Calvary, to the dirge of the town brass band.

As Good Fridays nears, the sense of impending tragedy quivers in the air. On Passion Sunday eve, the church images are hooded with purple cloth. From then on, no work is done; folk belief is that the universe shares the Lord's agony, and a hoe struck at the soil would evoke shrieks of pain from the very earth. Children are forbidden to laugh and to play with sticks or other sharp toys. Their elders sit all day on woven 'straw mats to pray and meditate, stirring only to eat or drink.

Only the pious who chant the Passion in their little chapels and those others who prepare the town carrozas for the Holy Week processions keep busy. These are owned by the most substantial residents; and these notables compete to deck their holy possessions. Each carriage hull is plated with beaten silver. Set in a blaze of blown glass and candlelight, its image glitters with jewels. Family retainers heave the carriage along. Behind it solemnly tread the master and his extended family, trailed by musicians playing Spanish regimental songs.

At three o'clock on Good Friday, the whole town dies. The fierce sun empties the streets even of the prowling dogs. Windows are drawn shut. Families kneel before household altars to recite Spanish litanies. In some Luzon towns, fanatics still flog themselves to fulfill vows of penitence. At a fishing village called Masuko, along Manila Bay, many of the men folk annually submit to ritual flagellation on Good Friday afternoon. Beneath a wreath of shrubs or vines, the penitent wears a hood of white cotton cloth that covers his face down to the chest. His brown back he leaves bare. His trousers he binds with thongs at thighs and legs.

A verdugo, or torturer, scourges his back four times with a ladle shaped wooden beater faced with bits of broken glass. Then the flagellant walks off to his own Calvary, swinging a whip of bamboo sticks against his bleeding back. Passing a chapel where the Passion is being chanted, he makes a sign of the Cross on the ground, drops heavily on it and arranges his body in the gesture of the Crucified Christ. Then he picks himself up and goes on.

Holy Saturday's mood is lighter. Judas, the traitor, is hung in effigy from the tree nearest the churchyard, his miser's bag filled with Chinese firecrackers. To the pealing of church bells, he is set afire and blown up and his paper-mache limbs dragged off by raucous urchins.

Easter Sunday wears the color of rejoicing. The dark shrouds on the church images are lifted; and the priest puts on his white vestments of purity and joy. Another pageant takes place at dawn: The Risen Christ meeting his Sorrowful Mother. The two images come from different sides of Main Street, the Christ home by male devotees and the Mother by the parish women. From an ornate arch spanning the street, a little girl, dressed as a cherub, descends on a pulley to pluck the black veil off the Virgin Mother's face as the throng sings Hallelujah and the incense smoke floats to a pale gray sky.

In middle-class Manila, Holy Week has become just another bank holiday to spend on the beach or in the mountains. For what would people on the threshold of affluence want with a prickly season of penance? Even the rhetorical fury of the preachers at the traditional sermon on the Seven Last Words on Good Friday afternoon cannot rouse the faithful from their comfortable lethargy.

At a village in Pampanga Province, Good Friday has become a street-theater for tourists - with multiple crucifixions and a cast of thousand flagellants. At Mount Banahaw, southeast of Manila, pilgrims from mock-Christian sects worship at caves, pe'aks, rocks, waterfalls, streams, pools and springs - much as their Malay ancestors had done.

It is in the Philippine hinterlands that the folk enact the Passion in its oldest mythic form. Soon after Holy Week ends, the peasants return to their hill-farms, to bum the forests for the new planting. In every field, a crude cross is shaped of branches. At its foot is killed a white cockerel, the blood spurting on the ash covered ' loam. Then scented herbs and bits of iron are buried in the earth, to ensure the rice grains grow fragrant and heavy.