The Meaning of Easter

 

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AN AWESOMELY UNDERRATED PLACE

 

The Philippines is truly an amazing country. As small as it is, this nation of nearly 100-million people has made its impact felt throughout history, from being the first democracy in Asia to fighting side by side with the US against the Japanese in World War II to casting the deciding United Nations vote giving birth to the State of Israel. Even with the current problems plaguing the country – such as the never-ending natural disasters and territorial tiffs with a certain neigh bouring superpower that a lot of other small countries are cozying up with for economic gain, the Philippines and its people continue to stand firm in the face of such adversities.

 

Like New Zealand – another island nation situated in the Western Pacific, the Philippines is also a fascinating country as are its people and culture. Now that it’s Easter once more, we take this time to pause and take you for a short tour with some facts and comparisons about one of the world’s most awesomely un derrated places ever.

 

Let’s start with the goriest period of the year – Easter in the Philippines, which Filipinos the world over observe as ‘Holy Week’. It is a time when penitent Filipinos ignore the Catholic church and whip themselves raw ‘to atone for their sins’ as they parade barefoot through the streets on Maundy Thursday. More on this matter a bit later.

 

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THEY MISSED THEIR DESIRED TARGET

 

As a predominantly Roman Catholic country today, the Philippines faithfully celebrate Holy Week normally in the month April every year. It has become a sacrosanct tradition established not long after a time in the 1500s when a Portuguese navigator by the name of Ferdinand Magellan and his motley crew of seafarers – who all served King Charles I of Spain in search of a westward route to the “Spice Islands” (now modern-day Maluku Islands in Indonesia), crossed the Pacific Ocean by sailing west instead of shorter east route in the Atlantic Ocean.

 

This they did largely to avoid damaging (actually, circumventing) relations with the Portuguese – then a maritime trading power who also happened to be their next door neighbour in Europe. That’s because King Charles I signed a treaty during the Junta de Toro conference of 1505.

 

It was during these conferences that Spanish officials seem to have finally accepted that the Antilles in the Caribbean and the known stretch of Central America were definitely not the Indies they had originally sought. This epiphany had the effect of setting out a new goal for ambitious Spanish explorers which was, to find a sea passage or strait through the American landmass which would permit them to sail to Asia proper in search of wealth beyond their imagination and of course, glory.

 

So that’s what Magellan’s expedition did instead. But they missed their desired target landing in an island called Cebu situated approximately in the middle of the Philippines archipelago hundreds of miles north of the Maluku Islands. It turned out to be an unfortunate mistake. Soon after, Magellan got too nosy and involved himself in a long-running spat between two local chieftains. He ended up being chopped to bits by one of them during a skirmish on the sandy white shores of a nearby tiny island called Mactan. Poor fellow, he had no idea how ferocious and courageous these local people could be.

 

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THEN CAME THE FRIARS CLOAKED IN ROBES

 

Then came along the first Spanish friars cloaked in robes a few decades later. After that initial missionary incursion, more of their zealous troops arrived with a singular intention of establishing the Roman Catholic religion under the Patronato real (royal patronage) of the Kings of Spain. This was the edifice of royal power, ecclesiastical privileges and rapacious extraction of resources combined which pretty much defined and shaped the huge global colonial empire Spain’s kings and the minions of the Holy See of Rome enjoyed together for hundreds of years riding off the backs of indigenous inhabitants.

 

The fragmented nature of the islands made it easy for Spanish colonisation, and far more easier for friars. The “Memoria de las Encomiendas en las Islas” of 1591, a mere 20-years after the conquest of Luzon, reveals the remarkable progress in the work of colonisation and the spread of Christianity. The same report reveals that in and around the archipelago were collected tributes from 667,612 people under the care of just 140 missionaries, of which 79 were Augustinians, 9 Dominicans and 42 Franciscans.

 

We won’t digress further on this particular subject but if you want to learn a bit more you can visit a link found in an associated website. It pretty much com presses (in 3 parts) what actually happened during the Spanish Colonial Period in the Philippines all the way up to the closing of the 19th century when Filipinos ultimately decided that enough was enough by booting out all colonial Spanish governors, soldiers and friars.

 

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When Spain arrived on its shores in 1521 and decided to stay, it had three prin cipal objectives in its policy towards the Philippines: the first was to secure Spanish control and acquisition of a share in the spice trade; use the islands in developing contact with Japan and China in order to further Christian mission aries’ efforts there; and lastly to spread their ‘Roman’ version of this religion. Of these objectives, only the edifice of the Catholic Church remained. The Philip pines still is the third largest Catholic country in the world. Its practice still de fines parts its culture at many levels of expression.

 

What they also couldn’t eradicate from the islands were the deeply ingrained influences, habits and genes Spain left behind. These other parts of their long subjugation as colonials ran much too deep to simply let go and forget so quick ly. You see, they also acquired a third language used as a lingua franca to facil itate trade; Mediterranean food recipes they enriched with use of spices; sturdier shelter designs that withstood tropical cyclones; fancy clothing styles they improved using local materials, dances and musical forms to go along with all of it. Now who wants to rid oneself any of that?

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BARE BACKS ALL DRENCHED IN BLOOD

 

Aside from the normal customs of observing Mass, some Filipinos also practice Catholic beliefs that have been mixed with local customs. One such tradition that stands out is the penitensiya, or asking for forgiveness. Now here’s the gruesome part we mentioned earlier.

 

In a gory spectacle of religious fervor, some deeply spiritual Filipino men liter ally reenact the same suffering that Jesus Christ endured while walking through the Via Dolorosa (the “way of Suffering”) to his appointed fate.

 

With their bare backs all drenched in blood and their faces hidden by hoods, these barefoot penitents trod through the streets whipping themselves rhyth mically with pointed wooden sticks tied to their arms as they take part in rituals that atone for their sins. They endure this physical pain in exchange for gaining a better life or give thanks. Lashing their backs in this manner, they make their way along narrow roads which lead upwards to a dusty hill.

 

If whipping oneself isn’t enough, some penitents can also opt for crucifixion. Yes, some profoundly religious people from Philippines voluntarily crucify them selves, and some have repeatedly done so for years so much so that ‘Holy Week’ in this archipelago has actually become something of a tourist attraction and is even officially endorsed by the government to draw in more overseas foreign visitors.

 

However gruesome this may sound and look like to outsiders, one must remem ber that the entire ritual is totally voluntary – there are even cases of foreigners who have willingly joined the “Way of the Cross” festivities to be whipped and crucified. Why they do this time and again has us still stumped even to this day.

 

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THROWBACK TO ANCIENT TIMES

 

Whilst Holy Week in the Philippines is a significant religious observance for the Roman Catholic majority and most Protestant groups, these denominations all disapprove of the self-inflicted crucifixion rituals and warn that such expressions of faith actually diminishes the real meaning of Lent.

 

This year the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Me thodist denominations along with the Western Rite Orthodox churches (Greek, Russian, Syrian, etc.) celebrate Easter at approximately the same period of time although for many years in the past this may have not been exactly the case as each calculated the ‘forty days’ of Lent differently.

 

But even as the time for observing Lent each year has somewhat been more closely synchronised, different churches from different cultures still hold on to a wide diversity of Easter practices. In New Zealand, Christians who hail from Great Britain and the rest of Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, the Philip pines and the Pacific celebrate their own variety of traditions.

 

That being said, however, only 50% of all New Zealanders report themselves as being ‘Christian’ in the 2013 census. More than a third have also declared be longing to the category of the ‘nones’ – that is, as having ‘no religion’ and don’t identify with any faith or religious community. The rest include the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and other smaller ethnic communities. Together, this collection of peoples reflects not only the growing ethnic but also the religious diversity of a country that at one time consisted largely of Māori and Pākehā communities.

 

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IS EASTER TIME REALLY THE TIME FOR EGGS?

 

That’s not all, though. There are also those who understand themselves to be spiritual and engage in practices, including prayer, meditation or other rituals that have nothing to do with the major religions of the world. It is a throwback to ancient times when Ēostre (or Ostara) – a pagan spring goddess, reflected some seasonal fertility resonance in their lives. They too celebrate ‘Easter’ but in rather unfamiliar ways.

 

Despite all these differing viewpoints, the majority of ‘Easter time’ celebrants merrily go on holiday during the period of Lent and sales of Easter eggs and hot cross buns remain high.

 

So what does Easter mean to New Zealanders in this day and age other than an opportunity to get away from school and work for a few days? If Lent has any real meaning then what is it because the truth of the matter is most cultures and creeds today appear to have adapted Easter time to suit their own individual idiosyncrasies and preferences.

 

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THE ONLY EFFECTIVE BARRICADE OF CIVIL SOCIETY

 

The conviction that all men and women are created in God’s image is the well spring that infuses equality under the law. It inhibits the primal urge of men to create totalitarian states and is the only effective barricade which civil society has against creeping tyranny. Democracy decays without it.

 

Countries with a Christianised history benefit from this tradition. But it is eroding. Liberal and progressive Christians now do not generally emphasize piety and the mortification of the flesh as a significant virtue as do, for example, the extreme fringe of penitents in the Philippines. A greater emphasis on the anticipation of Easter as a long weekend holiday is often more encouraged than the desolate theme of Lent or Holy Week. It weighs much too heavy on people’s ‘lifestyles’.

 

So in these ‘modern’ times it seems, Lenten traditions and liturgical practices are becoming less common, less binding and sometimes non-existent or non-compulsory in tone. As belief in God weakens we now rely on increasing legis lation for the salvation of souls, or at least the well-being of mankind. By denying the transcendent foundation of human dignity, civil rights law is increasingly becoming divorced from its historical roots and proliferates to placate the equality demands of all competing groups.

 

Having given up on God the law will make us better, so there is “always a law we can adopt to improve the situation”. This mindset changes the game when allowed to do so. It gives rise to an embedded political correctness where dissent is silenced. Its practitioners sitting at the highest levels of governance insulate their self-righteous moral experiments from popular criticisms with laws they create. They continually restate their claims as being superior above all else while stigmatising the valid complaints of those who oppose them.

 

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A MORE POWERFUL SUBLIMINAL MEANING

 

For Bible-reading Christians, celebrating Easter Sunday is traditionally a ‘Sab bath of Sabbaths'; a day free of everyday work activities; a well-deserved break from labour; a solemn religious observance; an annual commemoration marking the day of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 

The story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just a collection of Gospel passages in the Bible mentioning what occurred in Judea a long time ago. Rather, it provides a more powerful subliminal meaning about our innermost make-up as humans, which is – that at the core, we are all doubting Thomas’ and that the reality of truth needs to be seen and felt to be believed and understood.

 

So why is that an important aspect of the story? Consider: had Christ not actually risen from the dead, had he not physically mingled and interacted with a large number of ordinary people on different occasions following his resurrection, then there would today not be a faith called Christianity.

 

The recounting of the Resurrection of Christ in the Bible – more than anything else that is contained in that book, is the foundational cornerstone of a value system which all departed generations of believers of the past had internalised as it is now also for the 2-billion odd people around the world today who profess being believers of that faith in one form or other.

 

For Christians therefore, Easter is the oldest Christian festival, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. It is the central event at the very heart of Christianity; so much so that the apostle Paul considered that if Jesus had not been “raised” from the dead then the faith of those who follow Him would indeed be ‘futile’.

 

As it was then and as it is now for them, the story of resurrection highlights a present day reality that the centrality of teachings of the Gospel about redemp tion of sins, the consequent defeat of death and eternal salvation speaks truth and new life for those who have but just to believe.

 

That is what Lent is and all about. Amen.

 

Filipinos in Auckland | The Meaning of Easter

 

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