Round Rock, Texas
“For dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” Lent begins with this stark reminder of one’s humble beginning, and end, in the ritual of what we call Miercoles de Ceniza, or Ash Wednesday. In the Philippines, where 80 percent of the population are Catholics, almost every person you meet on the street, or anywhere else on this day, have crosses of black ash on their foreheads. After work and school hours, churches are packed with people lining up to “receive the ashes,” as we say it.
This day ushers in the Season of Lent, replete with ritual and color. Purple is the liturgical color of Lent. Churches take on the color purple, on the altars, and the priests’ vestments. On this day too, everyone abstains from eating meat, and adults fast, meaning they can only have one full meal, and have only liquids throughout the day. And this is done every Friday thereafter for the whole period of Lent, culminating on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Penance and sacrifice is the order of the day – for 40 days!
But this is easier said than done. I must confess, I try really hard to hold fast to the rules, but still fall short a lot of times. It was easy growing up under my mother’s strict supervision, and growing up in a Catholic school. But as soon as adulthood and independence came around, so did the real struggle to “be good.”
As the color purple can have many different shades, and still remain purple, I have seen Catholics become creative and inventive in the interpretation of and adherence to the rules, and still remain practicing Catholics. The practice has morphed (heaven help us!) from the comic to the bizarre. Some try to go around fasting, and still believe they are fasting. A friend told me, “Fasting is one full meal, right? I define one full meal as the time I sit down at the dining table until the time I get up after I finish eating. So, as long as I remain seated at the table, I am still having just one full meal.”
To some people in Cebu, for instance, fasting means a huge pot of “binignit,” a delicious popular snack of sweet potatoes, cooking bananas, sago, ripe jackfruit, purple yams all cut into cubes and boiled in coconut cream sweetened with muscovado sugar, kept on the stove, hot and ready for everyone in the household all day, on all Fridays of Lent, and most especially on Good Friday. Everyone just helped themselves with this throughout the day, and is considered to be fasting, the reason being, that it is not a full meal, only a snack.
The best example, (or should I say, the worst. depending on which side of the fence you are on) is having your town fiesta fall on Good Friday itself, so you are absolutely exempted from fasting and abstinence, and sacrifice! This is the case for Bantayan Island, located on the northernmost tip of Cebu. It is not only known as a paradise island of white sand beaches and crystal waters, but also as a popular destination for people looking for a way to get around the fasting and abstinence rule for Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, without committing a sin.
Bantayan Island celebrates The Crucifixion of Christ as their town fiesta. The story goes, that Bantayan Island, being a fishing community, could not follow the abstinence from meat on Good Friday because, to honor the Crucified Christ, the fisher folk would not go out to sea to fish on Good Friday. There would be no fish for the community. This did not go unnoticed. Bantayan Island received a Papal Dispensation no less, from Pope Leo XII in 1843. This document is still on display in the museum in the town’s Church of Saints Peter and Paul.
The Dispensation allowed pork to be eaten on Good Friday, the Town Fiesta. Perfect! What is a Fiesta without “lechon?” (Roasted pig) Knowing this, tourists from other regions of the Philippines, wanting to take advantage of the week-long holiday, would flock to Bantayan Island. Of course, most still tried to fulfill some of the religious rituals, like the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), and meditate on the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ, and join the procession of the image of the Crucified Christ. But I suspect the spirit of sacrifice and self-denial is lost in the Fiesta atmosphere, and in the partaking of the irresistable, incredibly delicious lechon. And we haven’t even factored in the fun and joyful experience of the frolic in the white sand beaches.
Despite all these ingenious maneuvers, and no matter where we are in the whole spectrum of the many shades of purple, I still believe the true spirit of the Season of Lent, and the essence of the spiritual preparation of oneself for Easter is never diminished or entirely lost. Because finding myself here in the USA today, I miss and long for the way we celebrate the Season back home. I miss the procession of the images of the tableau of the Passion and Death of Jesus, the dawn procession we call, “Sugat” or “Salubong” depicting the women searching for Jesus’ body. I miss the “Visita Iglesia” on Maundy Thursday, where families visit at least 7 churches, praying for their departed members in each stop, to obtain plenary indulgence for their souls.
But I have these memories, and now I can be creative and inventive about how I work around what is available to me in this different environment and circumstance.
At this moment, I am looking forward to getting together with my six grandchildren, for our family Easter Egg Hunt on Easter Sunday. HAPPY EASTER, everyone!