If there is any liturgical season in the Philippines that has character and culture, it is Lent. We hear the pabasa, with chants that date back centuries ago. Spectacular processions and rituals are performed during the season. But on Good Friday, everyone leaves his various concerns and participate in the very death of Christ: the Seven Last Words, the Good Friday service, the procession around town, and in some provinces like Bicol, the Soledad when the Mater Dolorosa retraces the processional path back to the church.
It is the Catholic way of going through slices of what Christ went through for love of us. True, we are called upon to feel as the Lord felt, to love as the Lord loved. But we are not required to literally undergo the physical pains. Not the flogging, nor the carrying of the cross, least of all the crucifixion.
Christ literally imitated
But even as most of us are devoted to our imitation of Christ, others are driven to push its interpretation literally. Thus, we get to see the penitensiya, where the flagellants honor the death of Christ by flogging themselves or having others whip them. We see them moving around town with torsos bare and their backs bloodied. And often, a companion would incise their swollen back muscles with a broken glass as in Bulacan, or with a razor as in Laguna.
While being whipped, lashed and gashed, the penitents would visit holy places like chapels or homes where the pabasa or the pasyon is chanted. And when it is over, usually at noontime, they would rush to the nearest body of water to bathe themselves. In Mindoro, they rush to the sea. They say salt water heals their wounds. And many of them quickly return to their daily chores including playing basketball with their friends in the afternoon.
In some parts of Laguna, boys would wrap themselves in banana leaves and roll on the ground to feel the smoldering summer heat roasting the road, then prostrate themselves in the form of the cross. And then their companion (taga-sunod) would whip their buttocks. Compared to the penitensiya, this type called tinggulong, is less bloody, but no less painful.
However, those who go through flogging and the tinggulong stop short at being nailed to the cross.
There are penitents who do, if only for a few minutes. These are called the ‘Kristos.” Those who take their panata to the extreme.
Taking imitation to the extreme
Blood seems to be critical in crucifixion (as well as in flagellation).
The more blood coming out from their sacrifice, the more likely they are to reach a trance-like state. They find themselves floating or flying and many would faint or seem to faint. Fr. Jaime Bulatao SJ, who teaches para-psychology at the Ateneo de Manila University, confirms that in an altered state of consciousness, a person in a trance may appear to faint or to lose consciousness (nawawalan ng malay).
These extreme penitents, nevertheless, would make sure that the nails are drenched in alcohol or they would take antibiotics to prevent tetanus. And yes, as soon as the nails are driven to their hands and feet, they are taken away right away, for fear they may die in the process.
The participants of these rituals are not male-dominated. Females are known to do the penitensiya or the tinggulong especially in Bulacan or the world-renowned mystical place at Mount Banahaw. They wear the robes of the Black Nazarene and sometimes with curly wigs over their hair. In some parts, hoods cover their heads or flowers decorate their crown of thorns.
One female Kristo is Lucia Reyes. She says she prefers to have more blood expelled in the ritual because it is cleansing.
What brings the Kristos into these bloody rituals?
Jesuit origin of flagellatio
According to Fr. Rene Javellana SJ. when the Jesuits came to the Philippines, they taught the new converts the Jesuit way of life, which included the practice of Jesuit discipline. Jesuit discipline traced its inspiration to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. In the 3rd Week of the Exercises when we contemplated on the Passion of Christ, Ignatius left a note to consider: if inspired to feel as the Lord felt in His Passion, we were given the choice to feel it literally. Thus, the use of the flagellatio and/or the catena. You whip yourself with the flagellatio while praying, or you put the chains with protruding thorns (catena) around your thighs so that when you walk you feel its discomfort. By doing so, you share the sufferings of Christ.
Fr. Javellana went on to say that the locals took to the practice readily, but eventually added their own to the practice. The attitude was still part of Jesuit discipline. Ignatius said, if you are to do something for Christ, choose the stricter way. So, not just the flagellatio but the crucifixion.
Very Pinoy and panata-based
Behind every penitensiya today is a vow called a panata. Fernando N. Zialcita said in his article in the book, Cuaresma, that “faced with a serious problem, the devotee promises the Almighty a painful sacrifice in exchange for help.” (Cuaresma, p. 155) At the very least, we find this panata close to the consciousness of the Filipino. In exchange for passing the bar exams, many law students who used to claim to disdain religion or even doubt the existence of God, would return to church, attend mass daily, light candles in churches who honor St. Jude or Sta. Rita, the patrons of impossible cases. They would promise never to disrespect God in exchange for passing the bar exams. In other words, they are willing to throw away their old lifestyles for something they value more. Magnify this, and you get a picture of the consciousness of those who are willing to literally sacrifice for something or someone they love.
And so the penitent becomes a devotee. They know whom they are devoted to that they are willing to give their lives and to suffer in order that the people they love gain back their health or restore their lives into normalcy. The penitent therefore flog themselves to show the sincerity and authenticity of their deepest desires for their loved ones or to fulfill their promise to the Lord after receiving what they have longed for. It is, in many ways, a show of their debt of gratitude (utang na loob) to a very generous and loving God. Our culture has it that a big favor granted should be reciprocated with an equal or a greater amount of sacrifice.
The attitude of the church to these Lenten practices is ambivalent. As a priest, I feel the same. On one hand, I frown at the literal interpretation of it and cringe at the sight of blood literally dripping from their backs to the road that willingly sips whatever liquid it could find on the hottest day of the year. To me, atoning for one’s sins does not have to reach that far: a mild deprivation such as abstinence and fasting, a few minutes in the confessional, and some meaningful work of charity are enough remedy to free ourselves from the enslavement of sin.
Personally I would give my whole life at the service of people, but not to be crucified literally as Jesus did. Judge me as having a little faith, but that’s it.
On the other hand, I find the extent and intensity of these penitents’ fervor laudable and personally humbling. Compared to them, I may indeed be a lesser Christian. If I can’t do what they do on Good Friday or on any Fridays in the season of Lent, then there is more to it than what I see. Many of these penitents do not belong to the higher echelons of society. Neither are they educated in the halls of Theology or Liturgy.
People’s sense of faith
But Church history and Ecclesiology tell us that when the hierarchy was plagued by scandals and the men and women of the church wavered in their effort to explain the faith, the laity in which these penitents and participants belong to, preserved and carried the faith when the leaders of the church could not. In the past, when priests were not able to go the farthest barrios, the simple folk devised their pabasa, so that they were able to read and sing Christ’s Passion Narratives. With the phrasing and simple melodies of the Pasyon’s chants, they embedded in their memory the Scriptures, like the people of the Old Testament did with their oral traditions. So that even within the limits of their knowledge, they were able to build their lives according to Christ. They were able to do what St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, urged us to pray for: to inwardly feel what the Lord felt in His life in order to follow Him more closely.
In the Philippine Lenten observance, Ignatius’ words were not just done in imagination.
Today, these rituals and the people who perform the penitensiya or the tinggulong witness to Divine Providence. When Church leaders fail, the Lord sees to it that His Word does not go down the drain with them. The people keep the faith, and in our experience, adds to it even if it diverges from the teachings and practice of the church. In Latin, we call this phenomenon, sensus fidei: the people’s sense of the faith.
In the greater scheme of things, it is God whose plan He carries out and no one, not even Church leaders, can curtail its fulfillment.
Reinerio A. Alba, Lent, the Filipino Way