By Gemma Cruz Araneta
My elders used to call it Cuaresma, a word I have not heard in a long time. In school, I learned that Cuaresma which is Spanish came from the Latin word Quadragesima, but before that the Greeks called the 40th (fortieth day) tessarakoste. For Catholics, there seems to be something mystical about the number 40: Jesus Christ spent 40 days in the desert (subjected to violent satanic temptations) after which He was baptized at the River Jordan by St. John and was ready for His public ministry. In the Old Testament, the number 40 was ubiquitously associated with the emblematic and allegorical, for instance, the Jews wandering in the desert and the trials inflicted upon Elijah, Moses, and Noah by God Himself.
As a child, whenever I would hear my grandparents, Alfredo and Filomena Guerrero, discussing fish dishes with the family cook, I knew they were preparing for Cuaresma. I would notice that in church, everything turned purple, the priests’ chasuble and stole, that piece of cloth covering corporal and pall, as well as the trimmings of the altar linen. I was told the somber color signified the impending suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Throughout Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday, all the images in the main altar and side ones were covered with purple cloth, which were removed on Easter Sunday.
In those days, the sedate 50’s, the pious adults would fast for 40 days which meant they ate only one full meal a day (usually distributed in 3 portions); they would also abstain from meat on Fridays, and other earthly vices like smoking, drinking, gaming, carnal pleasures; it was a time for making sacrifices and performing corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Palm Sunday was joyful; I delighted in selecting palm fronds with woven designs although grandpa preferred to cut a simple palm frond from the garden. Most of us believed that once blessed, those palms would ward off lightning, but apparently, that is mere superstition, what anthropologists call folk Christianity. During a recent trip to Batanes, we saw people depositing dried palm fronds in a large container in front of a parish church, which were later burnt and the ashes kept for next year’s Ash Wednesday.
When I was Secretary of Tourism, my good friend, Don Ado Escudero, invited me to be the Hermana Mayor at the Lenten rituals of their family plantation resort, Villa Escudero. He lamented that the bishop of the diocese always disdained his invitations to preside over the Lenten rituals. Ado said he was denounced, from the pulpit, for mocking a religious commemoration of Christ’s passion and death by including “pagan” rituals. I could not imagine what they were.
There was a solemn and grand procession in honor of the Santo Entierro. A century-old family heirloom, the life-like and life-sized statue of Jesus Christ was dressed in purple velvet robes trimmed with glitter; its cheeks were wounded and bloodied, and a crown of thorns with a resplendent halo rested on its brow. The statue of Jesus Christ was lying in state, in a glass coffin, its bare feet exposed, ready to be kissed or wiped with special hankies by the faithful of Tiaong and San Pablo. It looked so real! There was a stage where the Santo Entierro was placed and as the faithful lined up for the kissing of the feet, singers rendered both religious hymns and popular songs.
The next day, a modern “morality play” was presented, produced and directed by Mr. Nonon Padilla of Teatro Filipino, with Jacky Lou Blanco and Charlie Davao in the lead roles. Could the singing of lay songs and that play be the “pagan” elements the bishop found so obnoxious and sinful? Didn’t the early missionaries use “pagan” practices to Christianize natives of all of Spain’s colonies? (The current bishop seems to be more understanding.)
I must confess that I have not done the “visita iglesia” for more than 20 years now, but sometimes I get flashbacks of how it used to be an essential part of my life. My grandparents would take my brother and I along to the parish churches of Ermita, Malate, Sampaloc, Paco, to San Agustin Church in Intramuros. There must have been two others that I do not remember. Although all the statues and images were draped with purple satin, there were splendid flower arrangements everywhere. The churches were crowded and people came appropriately dressed. No beach wear, no pambahay togs, no spaghetti straps or floppies, never in the house of God! I have not lost my Faith, I do fast, avoid eating meat on Fridays and make it a point to stay in the city, at home, to meditate and pray.