POSTSCRIPT / April 1, 2021 / Maundy Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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‘Love one another as I have loved you’

The Semana Santa of my childhood in the old hometown

MAUNDY Thursday today commemorates the Last Supper, where Christ laid out the template for the Eucharist as he gave the order (maundy comes from the Latin word for “command”) to the disciples to “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Christ told them of the events that would soon unfold in quick succession, including his betrayal by Judas, the denial by Peter, his death the next day, and his resurrection on the third day as prophesied.

At the table, he takes the bread, breaks it, saying, “This is my body,” and pours wine, saying, “This is my blood.” He then tells them, “Do this in remembrance of me” with his disciples presumably not fully aware yet of the impact of the divine act being performed before them.

The more they are bewildered when, taking a basin of water and a towel, Christ goes to his knees and washes their feet! This act of a servant-leader, so humble yet exalting, is unlike the hypocrisy of kissing the ground by a commander who had failed his men.

Although dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Semana Santa activities are doubly significant as they fall on the 500th year of the Christianization of the Philippines, where some 86 percent of the 110 million population profess to be Catholics.

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CHRISTIANITY has melded with native beliefs and practices. In the Moriones lenten festival on Marinduque island, local folk wearing masks and costumes of Roman soldiers roamed the streets looking for a blind centurion whose vision was restored by blood from Christ’s wound.

These masked characters trailed by crowds are incompatible with pandemic restrictions on mass gatherings – as it is now in Pampanga where devotees called “magdarame” can no longer flog themselves in the streets in imitation of Christ’s calvary.

A favorite Golgotha of some devotees, sometimes with a FilAm youth using the media spectacle to beam his longing for his missing GI father, was barrio Cutud in the capital city of San Fernando.

Some of the devotees had themselves nailed to their crosses with sterilized stainless steel spikes, as part of a panata (vow) – to give thanks for a divine favor granted or gain forgiveness for an unspeakable sin bedeviling their conscience.

These folk practices that attract crowds have been swept off Pampanga’s sandy streets by the pandemic crowd-control rules. As of Monday, the virus has infected 9,588 persons and killed 486 in the province. Those numbers do not include the 2,846 infections and 144 deaths in Angeles City.

As of Monday, my hometown of Mabalacat had 1,374 cases and 28 deaths, placing third after Angeles, whose score was not added to the provincial total, and San Fernando which had 2,183 cases and 91 deaths.

Mabalacat City Mayor Crisostomo Garbo himself has been quarantined, reportedly also his wife, at the Medical City in the Clark Freeport when they tested positive on Saturday. Our parish priest Monsignor Jose Lacap has also tested positive.

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MABALACAT in my grade school days was a quiet retreat, a poor relation of Angeles, then a liberty town catering to the R&R (rest and recreation) needs of Clark Field, the sprawling base of the US 13th Air Force that ruled the sky in the region.

That we had no bars and such sleazy joints was a matter of choice. Our officials and residents elected not to go the way of Angeles even if that meant foregoing the Yankee dollars that good-timing airmen tossed around.

The town was comfortable in not having even a fire department. There was no need for it. When a house caught fire, we simply called Clark next door and one or two firetrucks would rush over, sirens and flashers breaking our humdrum existence.

Neither did we have a sparkling hospital, not because we had developed immunity with decades of exposure to grime and germs. It was just that when someone needed a procedure in a hospital setting, we asked Clark and an ambulance fetched the patient.

 Semana Santa: Keep still, quiet

SEMANA Santa was a somber lull in the hot months when we children were admonished to avoid loud talk and not to climb trees, nor play with pointed or bladed things as everybody was supposedly liable to get hurt.

There would be the magdarame, the hooded flagellants who trudged in measured steps down the dusty side road while whipping their backs raw. We kids followed them up to a hidden bend of a stream far from town where they cleaned up.

There was the “pasyon” (what Tagalogs called “pabasa”) either in the house of a wealthy devotee who seemed to own a piece of heaven or in a public “senakulo” filled with the non-stop reading/singing of what I understood then as stories or verses from the Bible.

Senakulos were also built by barrios (forerunner of the barangays) competing with one another – in the same spirit of competition behind lantern design contests at Christmas time.

The best part was that the senakulo served refreshments. We kids, forever hungry, walked from barrio to barrio sampling their servings and going home so full that we did not have to eat supper (“dinner” was for the rich).

There were years when there would be staged in the plaza a “Pasión y Muerte”, a dramatization heavy with costumes, wigs and props, on Christ’s suffering.

Farmers came to town with their families on bull carts and made it like watching a drive-in stage show. The children just slept through it all, as expected.

Mabalacat, aside from being old-fashioned, was, I swear, religious. At 6 p.m. the parish priest at the “convento” switched on the two giant loudspeakers atop the church, one facing north, the other south.

The church bells rang for the Angelus and whatever we were doing, even out in the street, we stopped, faced the direction of the church – like Muslims facing Mecca? – and the town prayed the Angelus led by the priest.

Now I remember his name! The priest who did all that “broadcasting” innovation to bring the town together in prayer was “Father Tumang”. I think he should be declared a saint.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 1, 2021, under the head "Wash people's feet, not kiss the ground")

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