(I’m resurrecting this Holy Week piece, which first appeared in “Binhi,” our parish newsletter early in the new millennium.
(Upon my friend Fr. Boyet Santiago’s encouragement [and insistence], I briefly edited the newsletter as a member of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bacoor.
(The essay again appeared a few years later to a wider audience when it was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
(Don’t be surprised if the article doesn’t mention anything about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and 24-hour access to Wi-Fi.
(Most of these latter-day products of technology—which now give Christians more options to do almost anything except reflect—didn’t exist as recent as six years ago.
(There won’t be an Easter Sunday unless we go through a Good Friday. I’m reserving my Easter greetings to you, as we try to slow down, reflect and strive to become better Christians in the week, months and years ahead.—AYV)
IT seems young people nowadays have never had it so good during Holy Week. Apart from the greater mobility offered to them by unbelievably cheap flights to various vacation hotspots here and abroad, teenagers and young adults now have a wider range of options to choose from without leaving home to escape the heat and while away the time, which, strangely enough, seems to stand still the moment Palm Sunday rolls in.
Apart from the 100 or so channels available on cable TV, kids today can now stock up on DVDs they’ve missed, and watch film after film after film until the cows come home on Easter Sunday. Those whose folks can’t afford to have air conditioners installed in their homes can cool their heels in nearby malls, some of which remain open serving, of all things, Jollibee hamburgers and Kentucky fried chicken even on Good Friday!
Indeed, what was supposed to be intended as a time for rest and reflection, Holy Week has gradually degenerated over the decades as an occasion to “get away from it all.” Which, in turn, leaves the more spiritually aware or the simply cynical to ask: from what?
Holiday on holy days
From the quizzical looks I get from friends and acquaintances every time they learn that I have no intentions of leaving my house and spending Holy Week elsewhere (sa bahay lang ako), it seems going on a holiday during these supposed holy days has now become the rule rather than the exception.
Instead of leaving the subject at that, not a few would even push it further: Sa bahay ka lang, bakit naman? (You’re just staying at home, why?) Never one to leave certain questions unanswered, I usually retort with a counter question: Bakit naman hindi? (Why not?)
When I was growing up in Metro Manila back in the 1970s, I looked forward to Holy Week with a mixed feeling of dread and anticipation. Having no province to go home to, we usually spend the time holed up in a small, rented apartment somewhere in Quezon City.
I still remember vividly that we were one of the few, if not the only house in our neighborhood to have two palm fronds displayed above the front door all-year round.
Since neither my younger sister nor I would want to relinquish the honor (and fun!) of welcoming the grownup Jesus as he made his way to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, my hapless mother, to keep the peace at home, would always buy a pair of palaspas for each of us to wave with all our might (it certainly beat super typhoon Yoling any day) until the poor priest ran out of holy water.
There was also a time when I equated the annual bisita iglesya on Maundy Thursday with Christmas sans gifts, traffic jams, colorful lights and the cool air associated with the Yuletide season. Visiting churches one after the other to implore God’s grace and ask for mercy and forgiveness, in my young mind, was pretty much like going from one relative’s house to another during Christmastime asking for aguinaldo.
Pure and simple torture
My maternal grandfather, God bless his soul, thankfully didn’t forbid us to take baths on sticky hot Good Fridays like children in his generation were required to do by their superstitious elders. Nevertheless, the prohibitions I was expected to observe ran contrary to my loquacious and boisterous nature. In short, Holy Week to me was still pure and simple torture!
He did expect us, under pain of being subjected to a severe, albeit hushed, dressing down, to stay in the house, keep to ourselves and refrain from making unnecessary noises that could incur the ire of a “dead God.” In other words, we were expected to reserve all our laughter and pent-up energy until the traditional dawn “salubong” on Easter Sunday. Ang tagal naman!
With nothing to watch on TV except for reruns of such “sand and sandals” classics as “The Robe,” “Demetrius and the Gladiators,” “Constantine and the Cross” and the Father Peyton-produced Family Rosary Crusade (his production of the Sorrowful Mysteries was either too PC for its time or too timid to show Jesus’ face), Holy Week then, as far as I was concerned, was one long exercise in the art of overcoming boredom.
I won’t even touch on the thought instilled in me like a mantra by my teachers during elementary school: such minor sacrifices are nothing compared to what Jesus had to undergo to save us from our sins.
Despite it being an effective way of making bad boys like me feel utterly guilty—at least, for a time—back then, I totally and wholeheartedly agree even up to now with the nuns and priests responsible for my formation: for one to live an exemplary Christian life, one has to brace one’s self for a life littered with all sorts of obstacles and sacrifices. Believing, however, is one thing. Putting it to practice is, well, quite another.
Nothing compared to before
Still, I couldn’t seem to shake off the thought of how lucky kids today are during Holy Week compared to my generation. That was until I realized, in the course of going through some Holy Week-related materials not too long ago, that what I had been through as a child was nothing compared with what earlier generations of Catholics underwent.
Apart from fasting and observing abstinence practically during the entire 40 days of Lent (except Sundays), they were required by the Church to refrain from eating meat and meat-derived products like lard and animal broth, to paraphrase a favorite Filipino figure speech, sa bawat Biyernes na lang na ginawa ng Diyos. In other words, abstinence is a must on all Fridays of the year.
Should, for some reason, they failed to fast and abstain from eating the meat of warm-blooded animals (which included and still includes all forms of fowl except fish) on any given Friday, they could make up for it through prayers and by performing acts of mercy.
That, however, all changed in 1966 when Pope Paul VI redefined and, in effect, relaxed the rules of fasting and abstinence in his “Apostolic Constitution of Penance” or the “Paenitimini,” which, according to Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Michael Tan, reminds us that there’s a “continuous need of conversion and renewal, a renewal which must be implemented not only interiorly and individually, but also externally and socially.”
Due to space limitations, I’ll leave it up to you to further reflect on the nuances, exemptions and dispensations involving fasting and abstinence. The rules, if you can call them that, are quite clear:
Why the need to fast and abstain?
O All healthy Catholics aged 18 to 59 are obligated to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The faithful who fall under this may take only one full meal during these days. Two smaller meals are permitted if necessary to maintain strength according to one’s needs, but eating solid foods between meals would be like cheating.
O Abstinence from meat is to be observed by all Catholics aged 14 years old and older on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays of Lent.
Nowhere is it said in the “Paenitimini” for a need to resort to severe measures of self-mortification. Instead, Tan wrote, “we forget that fasting isn’t meant to punish the body; instead it’s meant as an aid to prayer and spirituality. Emptying the body makes room for the less mundane. The hunger that comes from fasting is also a powerful metaphor for our hunger for spirituality.”
In a religious article on the Internet, theologian Marco Fallon wrote: “fasting and abstinence is a prayerful form of self-denial and discipline. It’s another means to union with God. Catholics deny themselves food, drink, sleep or comfort, not because the body is evil or demands punishment.”
Rather, as Tan pointed out earlier, Fallon believes that fasting and abstinence are forms of prayer and petition to God with biblical basis: Colossians 1:24; Matthew 17:21; Mark 2:18-19; Acts 13:2, 14:23; 2 Corinthians 11:27; 1 Corinthians 9:27; 1 Samuel 7:7-16; 1 Kings 21:25-29; Joel 2:12-13.
“They help to remind us of God’s goodness and our utter dependence on him,” Fallon further wrote. “They also enable us to detach ourselves temporarily from some good things of the world in order to focus more fully on God and to hear him speak more clearly and to unite our will with God’s will for us.
“Finally, acts of penance without true inner spirit of renewal are lifeless,” Fallon concluded. “True sorrow for sin is necessary for true conversion and an individual assent to having a living faith-filled relationship with Jesus. To share is Christ’s cross is to be freed by him ever more fully from the consequences of the fall of man. To share in Jesus’ suffering is to share in his glory.”
We fast not because we’re motivated by such mundane ideas as losing weight. We fast to share in the pain of others who do not have enough to eat.
“On Friday,” said Fallon, “the day Christ sacrificed his life for us sinners, we make this small sacrifice to discipline ourselves and to overcome our sinful tendencies, that we might be more fully joined to Jesus and to the world’s hungry and deprived all for His glory.”
As Tan, quoting an unnamed theologian, succinctly put it: “Avoiding meat while eating (expensive!) lobster misses the point.”
And with all sorts of distraction out there competing for our attention, people today, especially those in their formative years, may soon find it harder to leave their comfort zones behind and empty themselves of unnecessary material objects in their respective quest for higher, more meaningful spiritual pursuits.
I never thought that I’d one day come to the conclusion that my mall-deprived, DVD-less, Boracay-absent generation was far luckier than this current crop of kids.