GOOD Friday in Dumaguete is still slow enough to savor a procession.
Our family stood at a corner of Perdices St., waiting for the Santo Entiero procession to start.
The mass after 3 p.m.—the time Jesus expired on the cross—found the St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral, also known as the Dumaguete Cathedral, full of people and, this being Dumaguete, mopeds and motorbikes.
The 17th-century landmark is reportedly the oldest stone church in Negros. Our group of four found a spot on the cathedral grounds, but the children and a far-from-penitent sightseeing mood made it difficult to concentrate on the service.
Filipino piety is a mix of contradictions. We bring our small ones to hear mass, and then bribe them away with candies or any sweet sop, bought outside the church, so they will not run up and down the aisles or cry the place down to kingdom come.
Perhaps to leave in peace mothers and the older siblings to pray and sweat inside the church, fathers are sent out to divert tots for the mass duration. It seems to be a welcome release, with the tiny tornados getting stickier and wound up by the minute and their relaxed paternal guards, indulging with a cigarette or the sight of other mothers and mothers-to-be.
What would other witnesses say?
Towering beside the cathedral is the 18th-century belfry, said to be the oldest bell tower in the Visayas.
Even the uninitiated can guess the purpose of this conical structure, lichened, solid and impregnable except for the “eyes” near the pinnacle, the lower ones for detecting the pirates that once launched their attacks from the sea and the upper ones, suspending the bells that sounded the alert.
The old belfry is now relegated to the duty of summoning the faithful to mass. I cannot recall hearing the bells toll. Many churches replay recorded chimes, the religious version of karaoke, a charming tinkle that utterly fails to reverberate in the internal chambers where faith, or doubt, resides.
Still, because it has sightseers like me, forever looking up in awe at its pinnacle, the old belfry is not so diminished from its early days, when it was the phallic symbol of vigilance and resistance, steady consort of Mother Church. Along the southern coast of Cebu, some watchtowers have fallen into forgetting or the worse ignominy of being sold and re-sold, along with beachside property and a priceless view of eternity.
This Good Friday procession, like others I’ve witnessed or participated in, took time to begin.
Circling the blocks along Perdices and Real Sts., this was also the quietest by far. The crowds spilling out of Rizal Park and munching a nearby fast food joint’s trademark crispy chicken skin was muted, guilt apparently being better than abstinence at dampening premature fervor.
Even the hawkers of bottled water and the cartoon-character balloons enticed without, well, hawking. Some of them were quite the sidewalk mime artists, having many speechless ways of waving a sweating bottle at a prospect.
When the procession finally snaked before us, we were unable to identify all the Marys, or the women figuring in the replaying of the Holy Burial. Since the life-sized images are owned and preserved by families, it is understandable that these depict not the actual bloody mess of the flagellation and crucifixion but a gilded version of Christianity Triumphant, post-oppression.
Lights, flowers and sumptuous gowns mark the Filipino’s celebration of Mary and the other women. Even in the midst of embracing a torn corpse or holding a cloth imprinted with the bloodied visage, these biblical females radiate star power. Perhaps it is easier to swallow the ashes of our mortality with a liberal sprinkling of drama and pageantry.
The figure I awaited, though, was Joseph. In this Marian-fixated country, Joseph has his following but not enough devotion or scholarship to peel away the mystique. Who was the man who crucially stepped into Jesus’ life? Who taught his craft to the child? But who is not seen at all when He was crucified?
Heading the Santo Entiero procession in Dumaguete was St. Joseph. Confronted with the timeless challenge to “dress up” a male in the company of female flamboyance, someone covered Joseph’s halo with chasing Christmas lights.
Looking more like a disco king, this Joseph trundled past, another enigma for deciphering.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 8, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column