Monday, April 21, 2014

The Passion

PAYING a Holy Week visit to churches puts me in mind of visiting a house full of ghosts.

I dropped by St. Joseph Patriarch Parish in Mabolo on Holy Tuesday. A choir was practicing and carpenters were carrying on. A few people were in the pews.

What gave the church an air of abandonment were the bolts of purple cloth draped to cover statues and crosses. Used to addressing my prayers to a human-like visage, it is disconcerting to see the familiar icons sheathed from view.

Every person lives with ghosts. Some are even comfortable enough to talk to them as when they were still alive. However, when the ghosts go away without explanation, what can the living do?

The week before, I visited the Redemptorist Church. Instead of vivid flowers, huge brown leaves like gnarled hands grasped the altar. The artifice made me think of death and the decay that determinedly trails after life.

As always, the news bulletins and media fare clash with the church. Reports about heavy traffic on land, sea and air went in tandem with travel advisories on places to visit for Holy Week.

Transport authorities are on “heightened alert” for the “mass exodus of Filipinos to the provinces for Holy Week,” reported Rappler last Apr. 14.

“Holy Week is not really a vacation week,” pleads Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 15 report by Justin K. Vestil. “Let us not go swimming while the whole Christian world is in reflection.”

When I was a girl, my elders warned that a wound incurred on Good Friday would take time to heal. This doused any plan for mischief, specially when my yaya added that a headless priest would rise from such a wound.

Today, neither superstition nor religion dampens the fervor driving people to go on “mass exodus” during Holy Week. Many take advantage of the long holiday and the summer to go home or bond with family and friends.

Rather than chastise people, shouldn’t church leaders take a more benign view of these contemporary excursions? Compared to the past, more families are disrupted by separations.

In the West, it is not only cathedrals that are empty, were it not for tourists. Isolation and anomie are too intimate with too many individuals, adrift from family or community.

Friends who enjoy the greener pastures overseas return to the country for one thing: to keep the old ties alive.

Despite the ills that plague the local transport industry or even the entire economy, the Filipino will always be known for this “mass exodus” to return to hearth.

Every Filipino has a fond memory of family outings to the nearest beach, sharing food cooked at home, and unwinding by rewinding anecdote after anecdote until the sun sets or the tides recede. Thus, a beach outing is a staple in every itinerary for Filipinos coming home.

In these times, when families living in the same city can pass a week or more without seeing each other due to work, school, traffic and other stresses of modern blight, isn’t a four-day holiday like Semana Santa a heaven-sent opportunity to be again within touching distance of each other?

Yet, I also understand the church’s concern for the faithful to slow down and look inwards. From racing like rats to swimming like lemmings is not much of a difference.

Confronted by a hole in our life, we cannot make the smaller hole go away by digging a bigger hole around it. Or to paraphrase a character from a novel in the Rebus series by Ian Rankin, the one who wins the rat race only proves who is the top rat.

For those who can stand the company of ghosts, I recommend stepping inside a church during Semana Santa. Never fond of crowds, I find that churches during this time make their best impressions on me.

Icons in shrouds are never the most scintillating companions. But the little they do say I hear very well: all journeys end in shrouds.

The chance to walk away from this silent company, return to light and merge again with the living reminds me again why Christians refer to the entire Semana Santa narrative, from crucifixion to resurrection, as The Passion.

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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 20, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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