Spanish-Filipino Catholic Traditions for the Holy Week in the Philippines

The icon of “Not made by hands Image” in the sacristy of Sviato-Troitsk Sergiev monastery, by Simon Ushakov /
New York Public Library Digital Collections

Filipino Catholics have their own way of observing the great and sacred week of Lent with a certain flourish that they can only call their own. Observance for the Holy Week is devoted to Christ’s Passion, death and eventual resurrection through the fervent practice of meditation and prayer, penance as well as fasting.

In the early days of Christianity, society took to a halt from regular life with Roman Empires forbidding its people from taking part in amusement as well as trade and commerce for the purpose of devotion to religious exercises.

Palm Sunday is the beginning of the Holy Week, celebrating Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, and also marks the beginning of the greatest sorrow of the Christian year. Filipinos weave crosses made out of palms, which are blessed during mass. These palms represent the connection of the parade of palms with His death on the cross. Families then take these blessed palms home to place over doors or windows as they are believed to protect the home from malevolent entities.

Maundy Thursday marks the Sacred Triduum of the week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday. It commemorates The Last Supper of Jesus Christ, where he established the sacrament of Communion among his disciples as well as His institution of priesthood. It was also here that he foresaw his imminent betrayal. Following the Last Supper, Jesus took to the Garden of Gethsemane in Mount of Olives where he prayed with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion.

Humility is the emphasis of mass on this Holy day – the last mass celebrated until Easter. Priests wash the feet of their parishioners just as Jesus did with his disciples. This is followed by a procession of the Blessed Sacrament around church before it is placed on the Altar of Repose. Maundy Thursday is also when some priests renew their sacred vows.

Families embark on the Visita Iglesia (The Seven Churches of Visitation) to pray before the Blessed Sacrament in each church and reciting the Stations of the Cross. Some families would double their visits to fourteen churches but generally there really is no set number. In the days of old, people recited all 14 Stations in one church but recent custom now calls for two Stations per church. Many Catholic churches keep their doors open until midnight to accommodate its visitors. Business in the Philippines as well as some media outlets are also shut down in preparation for Easter Sunday.

Good Friday marks Jesus’ death on the Cross and the remembrance of His great pain and suffering. It is a day of contemplation and deep sorrow for Catholics. The events of the day are honored through the formal Veneration of the Cross as well as prayers at the 14 Stations of the Cross. Solemn street processions and passion plays are also held around the country. Some communities have processions where devotees perform acts of self-flagellation and have themselves nailed to crosses as a way of expressing penance.

Traditionally, no masses are held on this day and no celebrations of the Eucharist. Altars are left bare. No sacraments such as baptism, penance or anointing of the sick are performed on this day unless in unusual circumstances. A marathon chanting of the Passion (a narrative telling Jesus’ life, passion, death and resurrection) concludes the events of the day.

Holy Saturday commemorates Jesus laying in His tomb as well as His descent into hell (harrowing of hell). It is also known as Black Saturday, the Great Sabbath or Easter Eve and is considered a day of waiting in solemn silence. After Jesus’ death, He is believed to have descended to the realm of the dead – purgatory or limbo – not to be confused with the hell of the damned. Filipinos prepare for the eve of the Easter Vigil, where devotees gather outside the church in darkness and proceed inside where a single Easter candle is lit with a new fire.

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Easter Sunday is the most important day of the Christian year. The great celebration marks Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on the third day following His crucifixion and symbolizes the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Easter also represents the fulfillment of God’s promise to humanity. In the Philippines, Easter morning is welcomed with a pre-dawn rite where effigies of Jesus and Mary join together from two different processions, which are often gender separated. This rite, called the Sugat, represents Jesus’ reunion with his mother. Mama Mary is draped in a black veil, which is then removed by “angels” after the Regina Coeli is sung. The moment is marked by the toiling of church bells as well as fireworks. It is followed immediately by the first mass of Easter.

Filipino households break the long period of fasting through the preparation of a spectacular feast. Some parishes host breakfasts for devotees and the less fortunate right after dawn service. Family gatherings are held in homes and the rest of the day is celebrated with joy and festivities.

The icon of the Saviour from Smolenskii cathedral in Novodevichii monastery in Moscow, icon-painting by Simon Ushakov, 1862) /
New York Public Library Digital Collections

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