First of all, for those who still have no idea about what is Holy Week, Holy Week or “Mahal na Araw” in Tagalog and “Semana Santa” in Spanish, is the most sacred week in the liturgical year in Christianity and is a very important religious observance. In a country like the Philippines, where the population is predominantly Christian or the majority is Catholic, making up about 80 percent of the population, Holy Week is strictly celebrated with a lot of traditions, not just among Catholics but as well as the Iglesia Filipina Independiente or Philippine Independent Church, and most Protestant communities. The Holy Week is highly celebrated because it reminds people or Christians of God’s sacrifice of His only son, and also God’s love for His people. For Filipinos, Holy Week is the time to celebrate “Araw ng Pagninilay” in Tagalog or to meditate or reflect on our lives. This period of reflecting already began on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season. On the other hand, Lenten Season, or kwaresma in Filipino is a season of reflection for people to set aside time and to recall Christ’s passion, his suffering, death, and resurrection, and it is also preparation before the celebration of Easter Sunday. Christians are supposed to observe 40 days of Lent during this time, the Christians imitate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for 40 days. Christians do this because there is so much to learn about Jesus through the last week of His life. While Easter is the most important festival in the Christian calendar, as it commemorates Jesus Christ’s resurrection on the third day from death by crucifixion. There are a lot of ways how to celebrate Holy Week during the pandemic in the Philippines.
Holy Week is composed of Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Black Saturday, and Easter Sunday. In the Philippines, the days leading to Easter Sunday, which are Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Black Saturday are considered regular national holidays. This year 2022, Holy Week is celebrated between April 10 through 17. During these regular national holidays, many businesses are closed or run on minimal hours during this period. Even the local television and some radio stations go off the air during this season. While some television stations reduce their operating hours and air Lenten drama shows specials, biblical and inspirational shows, and news reports on various Lenten traditions and rituals. Local television channels normally have a specially planned schedule throughout the Holy Week period. These are just some normal incidents in the Philippines on how to celebrate Holy Week during the pandemic by the Filipinos.
However, this year’s Holy Week will be a little different or a litter better than previous years, although this will be the third year already that we’ll be celebrating Holy Week while in a pandemic. A little different because, finally in our third year into the pandemic, the National Capital Region (NCR) and nearby provinces are placed under Alert Level 1, or the loosest measure with only minimal health protocols to follow (read more in this article from BRIA Homes: Road to Herd Immunity–Inoculation Update in the Philippines). In light of this, more physical traditions can now be done and celebrated, unlike the previous two years when we were under strict lockdown due to the high rise number of COVID-19 positive cases.
So finally here are some ways how to celebrate Holy Week during the pandemic at present under Alert Level 1 with only minimal health protocols to follow here in the Philippines.
Ash Wednesday signifies the beginning of the Lent season, embodied by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, or the time for the people to reflect and meditate on their lives and sins committed. It is actually a reminder of human death and the need for communion with God. The palm leaves that were used from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations are burned and the ashes from it are received by the Catholics on the foreheads to symbolize repentance, this is how it is done under the normal circumstances during pre-pandemic days. The parishes normally burn these palm branches the day before Ash Wednesday. However, for the past two years of strict lockdown, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) provided modified guidelines on how and where to obtain these ashes. They have suggested that the ashes can be obtained from dried branches or leaves of plants or trees because many churches will find it difficult to find old palm branches blessed in the celebration of Palm Sunday last 2020 and 2021, as public masses had been suspended at that time.
During Ash Wednesday, normally Catholic priests, nuns, or lay ministers traditionally put cross-shaped ashes on the churchgoers’ foreheads to symbolize repentance from sin, a reminder for everyone that we came from dust and to dust we shall return. Unfortunately, in the previous years, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has forced the Catholic Church modified this ritual to keep churchgoers safe from the coronavirus. There are two options given, one is by sprinkling the ashes on the head of the faithful, and another way is by using cotton balls in applying ashes on the forehead of the churchgoers. And those who cannot physically come to the church on that day can join the celebration on television and other online means and in which, they can receive the ashes from their family members who were able to go to church for the celebration and will bring home ashes for them.
At last, after two years of a very strict lockdown, this 2022, the Filipino Catholics once again received the cross-shaped ashes on their foreheads placed by the priests on Ash Wednesday, March 2.
Waving the “Palaspas” (Woven Palm Fronds) on Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday is the final Sunday and marks the close of Lent and at the same time the beginning of Holy Week, and immortalizes the triumphant arrival of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, days before he was crucified. The woven palm fronds (palaspas) often symbolize a sign of peace and victory, so they are usually and preferably use on Palm Sunday to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem.
In the Gospels, Jesus Christ arrived at Jerusalem riding a young donkey, while the townspeople are praising Him by throwing their clothes, possibly palms and small branches, in front of Jesus Christ as a sign of homage and welcoming Him. Back in their time, this was the customary thing to do in welcoming people of great respect. The arrival through a donkey instead of the usual horse is truly symbolic because it represents the humble arrival of a person in peace, as compared to one arriving on a horse in war.
Filipinos in the Philippines visit the church on Palm Sunday to attend Mass and have their woven palm fronds (palaspas) get blessed by the priest. The traditional ritual of waving palm leaves as the priest enters the church is a reenactment of Jesus’ glorious entrance into Jerusalem. The palms can be bought outside the churches and many vendors fashion them into small crosses or other items of personal devotion these palms, once blessed by the priest, it can be returned to the church, or be kept for the whole year.
Visita Iglesia or the Seven Churches Visitation is a classic Lenten tradition way back to the 1500s. It is also considered one of the most popular rituals when recalling Christ’s passion to attend seven churches on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
For the past two years, the faithful can still observe the traditional Visita Iglesia and visit seven different churches, albeit virtually. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) even launched on its website a 360-degree interactive tour of different churches in the Philippines.
Station of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross consist of a 14-step Catholic devotion that remembers Jesus Christ’s last day on Earth as a man. It is commonly done in churches, where the faithful walk to each of these stations in the order of Jesus’ ordeal, from His arrest, trial, suffering, and death. Devotees pause at each station to commemorate the scene it illustrates and to offer a short prayer.
The stations are usually used as a mini pilgrimage as the devotee moves from station to station. At each station, the devotee recalls and reflects on a particular event from Christ’s last day on earth. The devotee narrates specific prayers and moves to the next station until all 14 are complete.
Stations of the Cross is usually done on Good Friday, the day in the Holy Week that commemorates Jesus’ death. But it can also be held while doing the Visita Iglesia where the faithful can either visit fourteen (14) churches and pray at least in one station per church visited, or visit seven (7) churches and pray in at least two (2) stations in each church.
During the previous years of the pandemic, the traditional activity of visiting the Station of the Cross was shifted online, well not just the Station of the Cross but as well as the other ways how to celebrate Holy Week during the pandemic in the country has been forced to be modified virtually. It can be done through your home because what is more important is the prayers and intentions more than the traditional switching of stations.
The current 14 Stations of the Cross:
- Jesus is sentenced to death.
- The cross is rested upon him.
- Jesus falls for the first time.
- Jesus meets his Blessed Mother Mary.
- Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross.
- Jesus’ face is wiped by Veronica.
- Jesus falls for the second time.
- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.
- Jesus falls for the third time.
- Jesus is stripped of his garments.
- Jesus is crucified.
- Jesus dies on the cross.
- The body of Jesus is removed from the Cross.
- Jesus is entombed.
Senakulo or Passion Play is a nationwide event, stage, or street play that allows people to see the life, tribulations, and ‘revolutionary demise of Jesus Christ. It is usually done not in theater corridors or any place for performance but on the streets or open spaces in local communities. Mostly organized by the local government and volunteers so expect the setup is a bit more creative and unusual. This event keeps going for an aggregate of eight nights, starting on Palm Sunday and ending full circle on Easter Sunday. However, at present due to the pandemic and its various tedious requirements, this will not be done for straight seven nights and can generally can only take up to two or three hours.
It may be perceived as something far from a theatrical level, still, Senakulo is considered a theatrical performance, with a lot of preparation by participants behind it. The scripts were still taken off from the Bible and the costumes appear closer to Hispanic. Regardless, the people still appreciate this kind of play because it depicts the humble life of Jesus while He’s on earth and people will learn an important lesson that it is essential for Christians to take suffering in march, just like Christ did. Senakulo gives insight into the traditions that are essential to everyone and teaches us something about Filipino culture and the importance of religion. So, make sure to immerse yourself in the Filipino culture. The Senakulo in San Fernando, Pampanga is one of the extreme and bloodiest reenactments and the most popular so far in the country.
These traditional rituals or activities during the Holy Week have been forced to be modified due to the pandemic. Catholics were forced to be creative in commemorating Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for all of us for the past two years so that the faithful may still celebrate the Holy Week solemnly while keeping in mind the safety protocols obediently. But this year’s celebration is a bit different, under Alert Level 1, some, if not all of the listed above activities can now be done physically with just minimal health protocols to follow, allowing not to contribute any more to the spread of the virus. You can learn more about other activities during Holy Week from this BRIA Home article– Spending Holy Week at Your Affordable House and Lot in the Philippines.
Written by Katherine Kaye Villafuerte