When our Lord was handed over to the will of his cruel foes, they ordered him, in mockery of his royal dignity, to carry the instrument of his own torture. This was done to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah: “A child is born for as, a son is given to us; sovereignty is laid upon his shoulders.” To the wicked, the sight of the Lord carrying his own cross was indeed an object of derision; but to the faithful a great mystery was revealed, for the cross was destined to become the scepter of his power. Here was the majestic spectacle of a glorious conqueror mightily overthrowing the hostile forces of the devil and nobly bearing the trophy of his victory. On the shoulders of his invincible patience he carried the sign of salvation for all the kingdoms of the earth to worship, as if on that day he would strengthen all his future disciples by the symbol of his work, and say to them: “Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
It was not in the temple, whose cult was now at an end, that Christ, as the new and authentic sacrifice of reconciliation, offered himself to the Father; nor was it within the walls of the city doomed to destruction for its crimes. It was beyond the city gates, outside the camp, that he was crucified, in order that when the ancient sacrificial dispensation came to an end a new victim might be laid on a new altar, and the cross of Christ become the altar not of the temple, but of the world.
O the marvelous power of the cross, the glory of the passion! No tongue can fully describe it. Here we see the judgment seat of the Lord, here sentence is passed upon the world, and here the sovereignty of the Crucified is revealed.
You drew all things to yourself, Lord, when you stretched out your hands all the day long to a people that denied and opposed you, until at last the whole world was brought to proclaim your majesty. You drew all things to yourself, Lord, when all the elements combined to pronounce judgment in execration of that crime; when the lights of heaven were darkened and the day was turned into night; when the land was shaken by unwonted earthquakes, and all creation refused to serve those wicked people. Yes, Lord, you drew all things to yourself. The veil of the temple was torn in two and the Holy of Holies taken away from those unworthy high priests. Figures gave way to reality, prophecy to manifestation, law to gospel. You drew all things to yourself in order that the worship of the whole human race could be celebrated everywhere in a sacramental form which would openly fulfil what had been enacted by means of veiled symbols in that single Jewish temple.
Now that the multiplicity of animal sacrifices has ceased, the single offering of your body and blood takes the place of that diversity of victims, since you are the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and in yourself you fulfil all the rites of the old law, so that as there is now a single sacrifice in place of all those victims, so there is a single kingdom formed of all the peoples of the earth.
I must have been one of the last children of my generation who was reared on the pious folklore of Holy Week.
Even growing up, much of it was already retreating into desuetude, at least in the city. In the rural areas, where Catholicism’s roots still permeate into the fabric of everyday social transactions, they are inseparable from the rhythms of daily life; in urban Manila, though, one has to seek out ‘historic’ districts to get a feel of that old time religion.
Time was when the expression “mukha kang Mahal na Araw/Viernes Santo” (you look like the Blessed Day/Good Friday) literally meant something: it was a day when one was discouraged by one’s elders from smiling, laughing, singing, or even bathing. Christ was dead; the devils of Hell are loose and prowl about the world looking to sift the elect as wheat. Thus, one had to stay indoors and say all manners of prayers to protect oneself from evil.
Good Friday is still known by curanderos as the most propitious day to bless and hex. In Siquijor province, sorcerors climb to the mountains and there consult with their familiars, learning the secrets of strange and hidden worlds before mixing even stranger potions for healing— or cursing. Christ is dead on Good Friday, and there is no one to punish their caprice.
It is said that Good Friday is an especially auspicious day to ‘recharge’ one’s anting-anting (amulets), or if one doesn’t have one, obtain one. To do this, you must find a banana tree that is about to bloom; wait under the banana heart, and at midnight, a stone will fall from it. You must whisper secret words of power over this stone at a precise hour for its full power to take effect. It is said that an anting-anting can protect its wearer from bullets, or even make one invisible in the eyes of his enemies.
Over at the church, the Santo Entierro waits to be venerated. In the days leading to Good Friday, he is bathed, smoked, dressed, and laid in state; processed in a marvelous fashion in a magnificent glass hearse; and afterwards laid out again in church, where throngs of devotees, barefoot, weeping, and solemn, queue up to kiss his feet.
(I originally wrote this for Good Friday of last year, but am re-posting it again)
I could hardly believe what I had just heard.
And yet there he was, standing as if nothing had happened, as if what he had just said was a matter of simple, incontrovertible fact, apparently heedless of the cosmic repercussions it entailed. Christ is dead on Good Friday, right? That is why I only pray to the Virgin Mary on that day. Then he looked away and continued with what he was doing.
Against every instinct of my doctrinaire, Opus Dei upbringing, I restrained myself from hitting this man—righteously, if I may say so myself—with seemingly more strength that I could muster. Christ died once and for all; He does not die again, and again, every Good Friday. But side by side with this immutable doctrine of our faith, is the pious superstition of the barely catechized—the great Catholic unwashed, as I like to call them—that the Lord is somehow re-sacrificed, every year, on Good Friday. These people mean well; they are not malicious heathens trying to subvert doctrine (that is a game for the educated, not the simple), just ordinary folk who, because they have no other choice, believe, firstly, with the gut. It is the rumbling stomach that forms their sense of justice and mercy, love and heroism, and it is with their guts, so often bereft of sustenance, that they perceive realities. I politely smiled at him and repaired to my own business, mulling over in anger at his words.
But looking back at that incident several years later, I wonder if there was not more than a grain of wisdom in the man’s words. Christ, in many ways, is the only god who ever knew what hunger was; He alone became acquainted with its terror. Heathen gods take on human form from time to time, but remain gods; Christ, though also fully God, divested Himself of divinity, and became, in a very substantial sense, a body: and in the end, a corpse. If only for that reason, the story of Christ could very well be the story of the average joe, one of the multitudes of the starving, faceless, nameless men who litter the streets to this very day and die, ignominiously, unremembered.
On a more profound level, I suppose, it should be the goal of every liturgy to tell this story: but not only to tell, but to incarnate it. In the Philippines, as in all Spanish colonies, the liturgy of Good Friday reaches its completion in the great para-liturgical devotion of the Descendimiento (the taking down of Christ from the cross), and in the sombre procession of the Santo Entierro. The usual practice in the past was to veil the sanctuary in either black or red; and in the middle was to be erected a life size image of the Crucified, flanked by the Virgin and Saint John. The Christ’s arms would be articulated (often accomplished through leather joints), able to be bent and folded to its sides, so as to complete the illusion; it would then be placed in a magnificent glass hearse, and paraded, with supreme solemnity, for the whole town to see and venerate.
This ritual was intended precisely to fool the believer. The goal was not simply edification, but to induce, as it were, a sort of trance, an illusion by which the devout sees the activities before his eyes, and concludes that it must be the very same event which took place, once and for all, twenty centuries before. At the same time, the power of this illusion depends largely on its resonance with the particular circumstances of the believer. He shares with Christ his poverty and dejection, his heroism, his martyrdom, his oppression at the hands of the powerful. And here, one must make no mistake: for these are realities still practically omnipresent in the Third World, outside the confined, clockwork universe of developed nations. And thus, the story of Christ becomes transcendent, overcoming the chasm of time separating the contemporary believer and his “father in faith” and perseverance.
In this, we see the victory of the Incarnation: for it is no longer possible to speak of time as discrete categories of temporality, but as a single, unified, present, swallowed up in the eternal Christ event. “The Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth”, says John the Divine in his Apocalypse; Christ, the Lord of all history, has conquered death once and for all—but because we are still subject to death and decay, this is a story that needs to be told ad infinitum, until that day when the renewing fire shall cleanse the earth and all of creation. By entering into the realm of the created, the Creator has forever destroyed the veil which separates man from God eternally. And just as the simple may believe, if wrongly, that the Christ dies on the cross every Good Friday, so too, rightly, do they believe, that He also descends into Hell every Black Saturday, battering down its gates with the hammer of the Cross—and so too, do they believe, that death itself must also die, and the fallen rise in glory with the radiant Christ every Easter dawn.
Lord that I may see!