Two versions of Self-abnegation
(17 April 2014, Gasan, Marinduque, Philippines)
Every Good Friday in Gasan in the island of Marinduque, Philippines, men and women of faith have a different way of emulating the passion of Christ. Women in black don a large crown of green thorny leaf, while Men without upper clothes, cut with blade the most vulnerable part of their body skin until blood drip out.
An elderly 80plus -year old woman when interviewed stated that, the donning of Popua leaves, an endemic plant in Marinduque, could be traced back to the Spanish times. She recalls that her grandmother would dress up in full black, neck to heels, in puritanical fashion during Good Friday, then walk bare-foot to the Church to hear the Siete Palabras or Seven Last Words of Jesus. As it was before, so it is until today.
The ritual of the tradition starts with the choice of green thorny Pupua leaves, about a foot long of stalk and leaf. They would then fashion it in circle like crown of cascading leaves, heavy and massive enough to cover the whole head, scalp and face. It would take the whole morning to arrange the Pupua. At around three-o-clock in the afternoon, these women would go to the Church on top of the hill, they would not yet wear their Pupua crowns, not yet until the procession starts.
The line of bare-footed Pupua women in black clothes, white candle on one hand with heads adorned with massive green crown is a sight to behold. Here are women in their 20s and a handful in their 80s ages practises this Lenten Tradition in solemnity and in prayer. Aware that that this is their outward expression of participation in the passion of Christ, they do this sacrifice as a form of Prayer, a form of Thanksgiving for the blessings received, a form of Atonement and Penance for the sins committed.
After the whole town procession goes back to the church, the Popua women goes to the cemetery and removes their head gear then burns them. The removal and burning symbolizes new life without sin.
About the same time as the Popua Women marches into the church, bands of Men troop to the cemetery almost naked with only a small short as cover.
As one enters the cemetery, the hotness of the afternoon only magnifies the strange mixed smell of alcohol and blood. On the skin surface, the “Antipo” as these flagellants are locally called, is a tradition of machismo and masochism rather than penance and faith? Under the skin, one hopes it is not, for what else could be the reason of doing it?
Persons chatted for a small talk, reveals that they do this as a form of penance for their sins. Remembering how Christ was flagged by roman soldiers before his crucifixion, the Antipos first have another person cut their skin on the most vulnerable skin part. Using a razor blade, the assigned person delicately makes a cut in small strokes, just enough to make a tear of blood. The cuts are made on the stomach, at the back, at the side arm, at legs, soon the guy is almost covered by his own blood. Soon thereafter, to aggravate the bleeding, the penitent torments his own flesh with a whip made of an odd number of 6-8 inch long, thin-knife edge bamboo sticks, cluster and tied together on a string or thin rope. While all of this is done while sipping gin or a local coconut wine, nobody seems to utter prayer or at least do it with sacredness, instead you will hear laughter and conquest of something. And when one is ready, the penitent goes out of the cemetery, out on the street for all people to see until the end of the procession where every Antipo takes a river bath, believing they will emerge from the water scar and wound free.
Both Popua and Antipo joining the same procession of the Santo Sepulchro seems like an ironical interpretations of faith in observance of Good Friday, it is as if, we do not have enough suffering. While Popua is a more acceptable, demonstration of atonement, is Antipo an insult to suffer like the Messiah? Unless the local Church issues a more definitive guidelines of observing the Holy Week, traditions like these would continue to thrive, of raw faith, regardless of theology or not.
(Documented with Jhuly Panday and Jayvee Sotto Mataro.April 2014.Gasan,Marinduque,Philippines. )