In the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran, Holy Week is the biggest week of the year. Throughout the Holy Week celebrations thousands of devotees will flock to the shrine every day of the Holy Week. Many devotees will attend the liturgical services of the Holy Week at the shrine. The lines at the confessional will be the longest in the whole year. Many will do the stations of the cross inside and outside of the church.
The highlight of the Holy Week activities is the Paschal Triduum: Holy Thursday – Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion and the Holy Saturday evening of Easter Vigil. Among these most important liturgies, Good Friday is the most well-attended. The church is packed and crowds overflow to the outside of the church. But the same big crowd is nowhere to be found during the Easter Vigil. In my almost ten years at the shrine, Easter Vigil crowd could hardly fill the church.
This somehow reflects the Filipino’s penchant for identifying more with Christ’s suffering and pain. Filipinos have suffered for so long time that the ordinary Filipino is called Juan de la Cruz (John of the cross). No wonder, two of the most popular icons of Christ amongst Filipinos are the Poong Jesus Nazareno and the Santo Entierro – both icons depict Christ’s suffering and death.
Fr. Ferdinand R. Santos once commented that the Philippine Holy Week is world-famous, not for its piety, but for its bloody flagellants and actual crucifixions that identify with pain in its most literal and physical extreme. Filipino religiosity can make suffering appear as an end in itself. This is a far cry from the liturgy of the triduum which conveys that the passion of Jesus doesn’t end in suffering but leads inexorably to the resurrection.
Santos warns us that detached from the resurrection, the suffering and death of Christ becomes a tragedy. Worse, it does tremendous violence to the innate human capacity to rise above defeat.
Jesus, indeed, experienced the most brutal physical pain and death any human being can ever endure. Jesus, in his own humanity, however, did not want to go through his suffering and death. In the end, Jesus willingly accepted suffering and death on the cross not because he took pleasure from pain or humiliation but to fulfill the Father’s will; “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Consequently, God does not want to inflict pain on us nor does God want us to suffer foolishly and die a senseless death. Injustice, poverty, war and hunger are social evils that are not acceptable to God, and never have been. This goes without saying that God does not want us to inflict pain on ourselves even if it is to commemorate God’s own suffering and death on Good Friday. God willingly suffered and died because it was God’s way of leading us to the true meaning of glory and new life.
The divine perspective on suffering and death challenges our perspective of glory and victory. Glory and triumph in human standards is to bask in fame, power, wealth, honor and influence. Seen through this standard, Jesus’ suffering and death was a massive failure. But God’s glory and victory is different from ours. God’s glory and victory is expressed in various times and places in the Gospel, like in the Beatitudes, in Jesus’ parables and Mary, representing the human response–Magnificat. In these proclamations, God’s glory and victory represents the reversal of fortune: In God’s Kingdom those who struggle in life now—those who are at the bottom or on the edges of human society—will suddenly find themselves at the top and in the center. On the other hand, those who now enjoy the greatest human security and social advantage will experience the opposite of their lives on earth.
Seen through God’s standard of glory and triumph, Jesus’ suffering and death, therefore, was a powerful protest against all forms of oppression and domination. Jesus’ resistance to the cruel and inhuman acts by his captors represents the strongest protest against evil and subjugation.
Holy Week is not the time to try to replicate Jesus’ physical suffering. No human reenactment of Jesus crucifixion, though how brutal it can be, can ever repeat Jesus’ pain and suffering. Instead, Holy Week is the time for the deepest examination of our lives, our values, our attitudes vis-a-vis Jesus’ gospel values and standards. This Holy Week all of us will stand trial before Jesus. How did we continue to crucify Jesus in our world by our sinful embrace of the world’s standards and values? How did we continue to crucify Jesus in our world by the pursuit of our own glory? How did we continue to crucify Jesus in our world by inflicting humiliation, pain and suffering to others especially the weak?
Our responses to these self-examination represents the crosses that we shall carry to our own Calvary with Jesus. These are the crosses that we need to willfully be crucified to. These are the crosses that we need to willingly die to.
By dying to these crosses, we will allow the new life that we receive at our baptism to rise up again. At the end of Holy Week, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection at the Easter Vigil of the Holy Night of Easter, we can truly renew our faith and proclaim our allegiance to God’s power of love and goodness and at the same time proclaim our fundamental opposition to evil.
May you have a blessed Holy Week.