‘Love one another as I have loved you’
Maundy Thursday today commemorates the Last Supper, when Christ instituted the Eucharist as he gave the order (“maundy” comes from the Latin word for “command”) to his disciples, and to us all, to “Love one another as I have loved you.”
At the table, Christ tells them of the events that would soon unfold in inexorable succession, including his betrayal by Judas, the denial by Peter, his death the next day, and his resurrection on the third day.
He takes the bread, breaks it, saying, “This is my body,” and pours wine, saying, “This is my blood.” He then commands, “Do this in remembrance of me” with his disciples probably not yet fully aware 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, humble yet exalting, is unlike the hypocrisy of one commander who once kissed the ground where some of his (“my”) soldiers had fallen.
* * *
Although dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic, current Semana Santa activities have added significance as they come just after the 500th year of the Christianization of the Philippines, where about 86 percent of some 110-million Filipinos profess to be Catholics.
Christianity as it has evolved in these parts has traces of the native beliefs and practices that the Spanish missionaries and mercenaries sailing on the same boats with different intentions have stumbled on.
In the Moriones lenten festival on Marinduque island, local folk in grotesque masks and costumes of Roman soldiers roamed the streets looking for a blind centurion whose vision had been restored by blood from Christ’s wounds.
The masked characters look incompatible with pandemic restrictions on mass gatherings – as it is now in Pampanga where devotees called “magdarame” are no longer seen flogging themselves in imitation of Christ’s way to Calvary.
A favorite Golgotha of some devotees, sometimes with a FilAm youth using the media spectacle to beam his longing for his long-lost GI father, was barrio Cutud in the capital city of San Fernando.
A few had themselves nailed to their crosses with steel spikes as part of a panata (vow) – to give thanks for a divine favor granted or to gain forgiveness for an unspeakable sin roiling their conscience.
These folk practices that attract crowds have been swept off the streets by COVID-19 restrictions. (Btw, cases have declined lately with the health department reporting yesterday 3,681,851 total infections, 26,256 of them active, and 59,778 deaths.)
* * *
Back in the old hometown of Mabalacat (now a city!) Semana Santa was that break time when we children were admonished to avoid loud talk and not to climb trees, not to play with pointed or bladed objects as somebody was liable to get hurt.
There were the magdarame, the hooded flagellants who trudged down the side roads while whipping their backs raw. We kids followed them up to a secluded stream far from town where they cleaned up.
There was the “pasyon” (what Tagalogs called “pabasa”) either in the expansive house of a “doña” who conducted herself like she owned a piece of heaven or in a “senakulo” reverberating with the reading/chanting of verses lifted from the Bible.
Senakulos were also built by barrios (forerunner of the barangays) competing with one another – in the same sporting rivalry behind lantern design contests at Christmas time.
The best part was that the senakulo served free refreshments. We kids, forever hungry, walked from barrio to barrio to sample their servings and go home so full that we did not have to eat supper.
There were years when a “Pasión y Muerte” – a dramatization heavy with costumes, wigs and props, on Christ’s suffering and death on the cross – was staged in the plaza. Farmers came with their families on bull carts and made it like watching a drive-in movie.
Aside from being old-fashioned, Mabalacat was, I swear, religious. At 6 p.m., for instance, the parish priest at the “convento” switched on the two giant loudspeakers atop the church, one facing north, the other south.
The church bells called us for the Angelus and whatever we were doing, even in the streets, we stopped, faced the direction of the church – as Muslims would face Mecca? – and the town prayed the Angelus together.
Now I remember his name! The priest who did all that innovative “broadcasting” (nobody in town owned a TV set yet) to bring together the faithful in prayer was “Father Tumang”. I think he should be declared a saint.
* * *
In those days, Mabalacat was a quiet retreat, a poor relation of Angeles that was 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, which is now the burgeoning Clark Freezone.
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 poor 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, Clark sent an ambulance to fetch the patient.
During the Korean and the Vietnam wars, Clark served not only the medical requirements of US forces in the region but also aircraft maintenance. We got so used to the heavy air traffic that we could tell what plane was limping in by just the sound its engines made.