Cross and Palms: An analysis of Holy Week Celebration in Filipino Context



Now that we’re celebrating the life, death and resurrection of the most beloved carpenter of all, it is important to recognize how unique was ours and why people are hurting themselves in the process of it. From the customs, beliefs and values, it seemed like our race is even more devoted than Israel itself.


Kidding aside, the TMPS Mental Health Advocacy Volunteers group presents a short analysis of why and how the Filipinos exert extra effort just to express their gratefulness and love to Jesus Christ. This is to inform us about our rich cultural heritage and to justify as to why it remains relevant-- both the celebration and belief even now.


I. Short Historical Background

by AT Banico

University of the Philippines - Diliman


Since the arrival of the Spanish colonizers in 1521, several values and customs were passed to us either by force or through the talk of the tongue. However, the extreme devotionary methods were mostly gathered from the other Catholic regions in Europe. For instance, self-mortification started as early as the 1260s in Italy after being intensely affected by a Perugian priest’s dramatic sermon by Rainerio Frasani and continued to spread throughout Europe in the 1400s due to cofradias. It reached countries such as France, Germany and Austria.


In the 4th Century, Barcelona Bishop San Paciano promoted the use of self-mortification as a way of atonement. The Jesuits and Francescans eventually took these to the Philippines, thus giving birth to what today is known as penitensya.




Aside from penitensya, there are other customs which reflect the Filipino devotion to their religion. Some examples are the pabasa and senakulo, both of which are modernly recognized as part of cultural art. One of the modernization done in these is Amelia Lapena Bonifacio’s “Papet Pasyon”, a play performed by the Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas and written by the said National Artist for theater. It is an annual presentation every Holy week and is directed by the late playwright’s daughter, Amihan Bonifacio Ramolete.


Even though such modernized versions are available (which were done by NOT shedding anyone’s blood), most of the Filipinos still stick to the traditional way. They value cultural heritage at the cost of risking someone’s life and-- this paper aims to discover why.


II. Common Practices and the Sensationalism of Penitence

by Gezeme Santillan

Polytechnic University of the Philippines



Photo by: Ms. Angie de Silva | Rappler

The Philippines is the fifth largest Catholic country in the world with 86 percent Roman Catholic citizens, hence, it is called the bastion of Christianity. In commemoration of Jesus Christ's passion, death, and resurrection, Holy Week or also known as Semana Santa is celebrated. This begins on Palm Sunday until Blacak Saturday that comprises the seven days before Easter Sunday.


It is a time of atonement for Catholic devotees through performing holy rites such as:




  • Waving of Palaspas during Palm Sunday where Filipinos bring palaspas to church to be blessed by the priest. It is to reenact the entry of Christ and his disciples to Jerusalem. People commonly place their palaspas outside their doors to prevent evils from entering their houses.


  • Fasting and abstinence to understand Christ's sacrifices and suffering for mankind. Throughout the Lenten season, people are required to avoid meat every Friday. Some Catholic devotees voluntarily give up their "guilty pleasures" as a sign of contrition.


  • Pabasa, a chanting or singing of Pasyong Mahal, a 16th century epic poem narrating Jesus' life, passion, death, and resurrection.


  • Washing of the feet to commemorate Jesus washing the feet of the apostles as a sign of humility and being of service to others during the Last Supper. This usually happened during the Maundy Thursday Mass.


  • Visita Iglesia. A day (late in the afternoon or early evening of Maundy Thursday) where Roman Catholics visit seven churches while reciting the Station of the Cross as their prayer and to meditate on the Passion of Jesus Christ.


  • Senakulo, a play that depicts the story of Christ’s life, passion, and ressurrection. It is usually performed in streets where penitents in costume walk under the scorching sun and flog themselves until they bleed as a sign of penitence.


  • Salubong, a reenactment of the first meeting of Mary and Christ after his ressurrection, where two groups from opposite sides carry the statue of the two and meet halfway. A young girl then will remove Mary’s veil to end her grievances.


Photo by Joe Torres


Among these practices, the most striking event is the sight of Filipino whipping themselves – Senakulo. Some Catholic devotees do not only flog themselves but also go to the extent of crucifixion like what happened to Jesus Christ. Crown of thorns are also placed in their heads to drip more blood. This may be a gruesome sight for some but flagellants believe that they are comforting Jesus and capture the spirit of oneness in pain and in sorrow.


These practices are acknowledged by the people and the Church as they believed in the Sacrament of Penance for spiritual healing. There are four elements incorporated in the Rites of Penance defined by the Council of Trent and their liturgical performance are necessary precondition for the efficacious reception of the Sacrament of Penance. First is the contrition where one should feel heartfelt sorrow and aversion for the sin committed along with the intention of sinning no more. Next is the confession of sins, especially mortal sins. Then the act of penance where penitent shows that he/she is sincerely sorry through his/her words and actions for the damaging effects of their sins and does something to conciliate. Lastly, the absolution where the priests or bishop who heard the confession offers forgiveness, saying a prayer that calls on God to give absolution and peace.


III. Theoretical Explanation of Filipino Atonement

by Jvleandrei Gomez and Robee Francicsco

President Ramon Magsaysay State University, De La Salle Araneta University



Referred as Filipinos’ effort of reinstituting their sins and thanksgiving-- atonement is exhibited through inflicting harm on self. Beginning with a series of small slashes on their back and intensified bleeding through whipping, hooded and barefoot in the public eye (Sarmiento et al, 2017). Vacillating from social, theological, psychological perspectives, a variety of approaches explains this gruesome spectacle.


The 333 years Spain’s colonization to the nature-worshipping Filipinos had long ended. The introduction of Catholicism had strongly reformed the Filipino culture that is still being lived up until the present. These folk beliefs regarding anting-anting, aswang and engkanto as well as practices such as penitensya, atang and pasyon are devotee’s attempts to differentiate and rationalize the writings about Jesus Christ (Pertierra, 1995). This softbound culture enabled colonizers to influence it but the contemporarization had not improved. In fact, Syncretism, confrontation of native & foreign beliefs, reinterpretation of Spanish inherited religious beliefs, and Filipinization of Roman Catholicism spurred the practice of self-flagellation (Almero & Rase, 2018).


Going back to the 16th century, the penal substitutionary atonement theory is introduced as that Christ is crucified and died in replacement for the sins done by humanity. Refuted by theologians that Jesus died on behalf of humanity’s sins, an oath on their behalf to satisfy God’s righteous desires (Vlach, 2009). However, Filipino folk Catholicism as its most literalist and extremist version is performed through observing rituals including flagellation, processions, senakulo, nailing to a cross during the Lenten (Peterson, 2007). This shows to reveal how devotees fulfill their religious vows, clerical perceptions and the role of suffering as communion with the divine (Bautista, 2011).




Atonement can be explained by going back to Peter Abelard’s (1079-1142) conception of moral influence theory of atonement. In Christian theology, moral influence theory holds that the main reason for Christ’s suffering is for humankind to look at it as God’s love and as the highest moral example. Through performances of atonement and theaters of the holy week, humans try to go as near as possible to Christ's immaculate morality. Try to look at it as Filipinos trying to expiate sins and blessings by doing what Christ had done, The Passion of Christ, crucifixion, flagellation of the self, procession and imitating the cavalry. Simply, moral influence theory posits that humankind models Christ’s morality (Cockyane, 2017).


Another concept related to Filipino values and the Filipinos’ unique celebration is “utang na loob”, reciprocating altruism. In line with this, the notable approach for atonement during the 12th century can be incorporated: The Satisfaction Theory by Anselm of Canterbury. This view includes “sin” as failing to honor and be responsible for the will of God. Moreover, it portrays that the meaning of “satisfaction” is about restoration, Jesus pays on behalf of the sinners by means of sacrificing Himself; He should have a reward for his deed but chooses to give it to humanity which is the start of a new life and gift of salvation. With this, the debt of gratitude is arising, it is like people owed the honor for God but it was paid through the crucifixion and death of Jesus. In return, to show how grateful people are for the chance given, we must fulfill our mission and acquire holiness because the nature of man is rational, which is made holy to enjoy the guidance of our Creator (Anselm Book 2, Ch. 1). All of these will result in satisfaction.




In addition, the Penal Substitution Theory by the reformers is related to the Satisfaction Theory. However, it was stated that the stand is “inadequate” as it was only focused on honor than having justice for what happened. It shows the accomplishment Jesus did was not just only about his gracious act but also the reason He was there, and in reality, it is simply for “us.” The punishment given to Him derives from the word penal, and occupying the place of sinners is known as substitution. This approach based on having a system for justice like in everyday living where people wanted to be treated equally aligned with laws, the balance for legal conduct is also its main focus.


On the other hand, it was further expounded during the 19th century by the Governmental Theory of James Arminius (1560-1609), Hugo Grotius, and John Miley, a Metholodian theologist. This view refuted the notion that Jesus paid for the debts of humankind because it was stated that He took punishment to show how sin must not be tolerated, how God can punish His Son by moral government and not just to satisfy. Jesus died for the church, and only by maintaining deep faith and repentance could have a part in salvation. This approach doesn’t only emphasize justice but also being merciful and as a member of today’s society, loving God and neighbor will be the fulfilling mission for the moral law.


The Scapegoat Theory is also an approach from philosophical perspectives. According to Rene Rigard, Jesus itself was considered a Scapegoat, a human that was blamed for the fault of others. However, it must be uncorrelated that violence became amnesty for an individual for it just signifies a non-violence love in means of sacrificing for the sake of majority. Actually, this theory can be seen in our reality, like how a person tries to project his/her current state to other people, especially the system in a certain community. It is like a defense mechanism to escape failures and maintain self-image through shifting and blaming. Nonetheless, it differs from the atonement because Jesus demonstrates how we can escape challenges by desiring the will of God.



What do we learn from this?


In general, Filipino’s unique celebration of holy week is not only deeply rooted from their cultural belief and faith but to several sociopsychological factors as well. In a religious perspective and context, love feels like something to be reciprocated and to be grateful for or in Filipino terms, utang na loob. That the Filipinos see their God as someone so high and mighty that they did not deserve the “salvation” given to them, and therefore, they must give back.

Of course, those who do it for other reasons such as for family tradition or personal covenant have a different justification but one thing is clear: the devotees started doing it because someone told them to and most of them continue to do so because of various motives. Indeed, the customs and traditions have been a part of our culture for so long and now, even if it seems like a violation of human rights for some, we can’t cancel it. Our values are not their values and we have different moral compasses to begin with. The only thing we could do is to respect and accept their way of living their faith.


Lastly, our skepticism about these religious acts can be diverted on creating research instead of hating them. By studying their culture and history, we may figure out the reason behind their behavior and activities but be reminded that prejudice must first be gone-- researching won’t do any good if analyzing the facts remains hate-driven and biassed. Immersion may also work unless you have a trigger on blood or anything which relates to these practices.


Holy Week, just like any other religious celebration must be respected whichever faith you identify with (or the lack thereof). The best way to show this is to enculture ourselves by studying about its rich story and mysterious sociopsychological details and not necessarily joining the event as one of the sacrifices. If we always try to understand our fellow countrymen's perspectives, it would be easier for us, mental health advocates to reach them. It is always a matter of empathy and deep understanding.


You may view the references used in this article here.


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