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The joy of Lent

FOR MY generation, Lent was the worst week of the year. Without DVDs, cable TV and the Internet, we were all a captive audience of movies on the agony and death of Jesus the Nazarene. Most of the TV networks (and even radio stations) shut down from Holy Thursday to Saturday, and the one or two that operated aired nothing but replays of religious movies such as “Ten Commandments,” “The King of Kings” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

The heat of summer even seemed to remind me of the Hell that I’d go to if I didn’t fast or abstain from meat, or if I failed to pray in front of the crucifix to ask forgiveness for my sins.

Two of the many Filipino Lenten superstitions were to avoid taking a bath and traveling on a Good Friday, or else something bad will happen to you. Superstition indeed can lodge itself into one’s psyche that decades later, I would still beg off from a dive in a live-aboard scuba trip on a Good Friday, and in Greece last year backed off from what would have been a marvelous motorcycle adventure on that day.

Not every year, but the real torture of the Lent for me was when my mom would require me to go with her on the visita iglesia, and do the Via Dolorosa, the praying on the 14 stations of the cross. Lent was the season of sorrow. For me though it was a time of bafflement every year: why would we be mourning the death of the Son of God when he and his father planned it all and, after all, he would be rising in glory again?

However, my well-to-do playmates across the street every year looked forward to Holy Week. That’s when their parents would take them to Baguio and later on, Hong Kong. It was during the Holy Week that I had my first discernment of class division.

Now decades later, Holy Week is still the party season for the Filipino elite, when they take advantage of the long official holiday for their annual summer vacation—Boracay’s peak day ever is Good Friday, and flights to Hong Kong are over-booked in the Holy Week. The poor on the other hand suffer the heat in the slums and in the crowded churches, or get packed like sardines in buses to go to their hometowns. Even the oases for the teeming urban poor—the air-conditioned Malls—are closed and denied them.

Lent is the season when starkly revealed is the vastly different universes the rich and the poor live. It is also the season when one clearly sees that our people, especially the poor, live in a medieval world, in which they believe they are subjects of an almighty but invisible feudal Lord who must be worshiped, pleaded to, and offered physical sacrifices for some boon—may it be winning the lotto, getting a job overseas, or getting their green card.

In a lower-class neighborhood in Manila where we lived for a while, ex-convicts who lived there believed they were forgiven for their killing and robbing if they joined the wailing in the pabasa—the nearly comical reading in a chant-like manner of the Passion of Christ in Tagalog.

However, the Lenten rituals in our country are not in fact practiced in most of Christendom. They are actually rituals invented by Spanish friars and practiced in countries of Latin America colonized by the Spanish empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, which used religion as its most potent force next to the musket in subduing the colonized. For instance the elaborate Passion plays with the Roman soldiers and a penitent playing the role of Jesus carrying the heavy wooden cross one sees in many Philippine towns make up the tourist attraction in the borough of Iztapalapa in Mexico City. What a Filipino priest in a TV interview ignorantly claimed are unique Filipino Lenten rituals are actually practiced in such poor, Spanish-colonized countries in Latin America as Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

There is joy though in Lent in that it ends in Easter, a time of family reunions and happy celebrations. Indeed in most Christian countries such as the US, Good Friday is hardly noticed and only Easter is celebrated, with hardly any reference to the resurrection of Jesus. In Greece and in other Orthodox Christian countries, Easter is more important than Christmas.

There is an ancient reason for this. The word Easter comes from the old Anglo-Saxon “Eostre” (also “Ostara”), the pagan goddess of the Dawn. Easter was Eostre’s Day. Winter is the long night, which ends on the vernal equinox (March 21 or 22) in the Northern hemisphere, when the dawn that is spring starts. For ancient cultures, it was quite obviously the time of resurrection of nature, and its start was intensely celebrated for days that ended in orgies under the first full moon that appears. (The Easter bunny and eggs we think are for the kids are actually symbols of sex and its consequent fecundity that comes with spring.)

It was clever indeed for the early Christian leaders to hijack the pagan rituals of Easter for its theology, with the First Council of Nicea in 352 AD decreeing that Easter would be the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. The idea of the resurrection of nature that is Spring was expropriated as the resurrection of Jesus. Lent was determined counting backwards, that is, the 40 days before Easter, hence the Catholic term Quadregisima. It does point out to the hidden truth that the resurrection of Spring is the more important event, rather than the agony of Jesus on the Cross.

Even the term Lenten, abbreviated later on to Lent—which since my childhood has connoted sadness and death—refers actually to a joyous event. It comes from the old English word “lencten,” also the German “Lenz”—which means spring.

Even if for us in the Southern hemisphere, April is not the start of spring but of the long, hot summer that ends with the season of typhoons, I wish I had known that Lent actually meant the joy of spring.
From the Philippine Daily Inquirer