SAN FERNANDO, Pampanga, Philippines — For tourists and pilgrims, the Holy Week road to Pampanga has often been crowded. The faithful and the curious often gather at the makeshift Calvary in Barangay San Pedro Cutud to witness the actual crucifixion of penitents.
But that’s not all there is to Pampanga in the final days of Lent, according to local historian Robbie Tantingco, head of the Center for Capampangan Studies at Holy Angel University.
Tantingco listed several Holy Week traditions in Pampanga that could provide visitors, even locals, less crowded options just as interesting.
In his Facebook account, Tantingco cited the Pasyon Serenata held during Holy Wednesday evening in Barangay San Basilio in Sta. Rita town.
“You’ve heard the pasyon, you’ve heard the serenata, but I’m sure you haven’t heard the pasyon serenata, which is the showdown between two brass bands and their respective choirs who try to outperform each other by chanting the pasyon to the tune of classical operas. They play all night long, one page at a time, until they finish the whole book,” he said.
“The sight and sound of betel-chewing barrio folks singing the entire history of salvation in Kapampangan and to the tune of Verdi and Puccini will blow you away,” Tantingco said. “Despite their gégé (melismatic singing, i.e., where a syllable is held over several notes), it’s a performance worthy of a concert hall instead of some dusty road in a remote farming village.”
Tantingco also cited the grand assembly of penitents on Good Friday in Mabalacat.
“It’s a scene straight out of a Cecil B. DeMille movie: hundreds, maybe thousands, of half-naked flagellants and cross-bearers in flowing red robes, brought together by sin and tradition, converge in the church patio for an orgy of suffering, self-mutilation and penance,” he said.
He said the number of penitents “makes you wonder if flagellation, like circumcision, is a rite of passage among boys in Pampanga.
“It also makes you wonder why Kapampangans, usually vain, would want to lacerate their skin and flesh and disfigure their pampered bodies,” he said.
Late morning, also on Good Friday in Angeles City, two passion plays or “cenakulos” are held, performed by actors from the vicinity of the public market.
One of the cenakulos is held at Barangay Lourdes Northwest which culminates in a live crucifixion watched by hundreds, if not thousands of people.
A smaller less-known version of cenakulo is held at the so-called Area in Barangay Sta. Teresita, the place once known for its brothels – which give the reenactment another layer of meaning and significance, especially since the Christ-figure is savagely beaten and is comforted by weeping women, he said.
On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, scores of penitents – some bloodied from self-flagellation – can be seen along local roads.
“They’re all over Pampanga, but it takes luck to catch them—the cross-bearers who carry electric posts and huge banana trunks (seen in Barangay San Agustin in Magalang), the women cross-bearers, the transvestite cross-bearers, the cross-bearers who tie a samurai around their waist with the tip pressed against their chin to keep their heads up, and the cross-bearers who are tied together to the same cross so that they can take turns carrying it (seen in Dau, Mabalacat City),” he said.
Tantingco recalled that in Barangay Lourdes Northwest in Angeles City, he saw a cancer-stricken mother carrying a cross while her entire family prayed the rosary and followed her around.
“Those who look for actual crucifixions can also try Barangay Telapayung in Arayat, where they are more private and more heartfelt. The participants are resettled residents from Bacolor where the practice originated,” he added.
In Guagua town on Good Friday, there is the “Tanggal” tradition.
“This is the ritual where a life-size statue of Jesus with moveable neck and joints is taken down from the cross and laid down and dressed up to become the Santo Entierro (the Interred Christ). The town’s Velez-Zaragoza clan performs the elaborate ritual with the same care and solemnity as I imagine a family would prepare a departed member for burial,” he said.
In the past, parish workers closed all church doors and windows while banging metal pans to simulate the eclipse and thunderclaps that supposedly accompanied the crucifixion.
“(This is) to arouse the same fear and awe experienced by the Jews. Today, we just rely on the rhetoric and theatrics of the Sieta Palabras speakers,” he said.
Tantingco added that on Good Friday nights, visitors could also observe the solemn and colorful religious processions in various parts of Pampanga.
“These include the candlelit carrozas of Arayat which transport you back in time, the sweet sound of violins playing Stabat Mater in San Fernando.
An added attraction to the event is the throwing pf rose petals from the balcony of the Rodriguez Mansion, the pomp, pageantry and piety of Sta. Rita reminiscent of Lino Brocka’s ‘Tinimbang ka Ngunit Kulang,’ the breathtaking beauty of the Mater Dolorosa of Guagua, and the grandeur of the Santo Entierro of Sasmuan.
“But if you have to attend only one, make it Bacolor, the colonial capital of the province, whose old families, driven away by the lahar of the 1990s, make a sentimental journey back home to accompany their respective paso (float). Tradition dictates that they wear black, cover their heads with pointed hoods, hold icons of the crucifixion and walk barefoot (probably a legacy from ancestors in Seville, Spain),” he said.