Philippines, Easter and Holy Week in the

Philippines, Easter and Holy Week in the

When the Spanish came to the Philippines in the sixteenth century, they brought the Roman Catholic religion with them. Although Spanish rule crumbled in 1898, the religion remained. Today eighty percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic. Indeed the Philippines is the only predominantly Christian country in Asia. Visitors often remark on the intensity of Filipino Easter and Holy Week observances. These observances engulf participants in both the grief and the rapture of the Easter story.


During Lent Filipinos stage Passion plays. In Marinduque the play reenacts the legend of the unnamed Roman soldier who thrust his spear into Jesus' side as he hung on the cross (John 19:34). The legend elaborates on the incident mentioned in the Bible by naming the soldier Longinus. It further asserts that Longinus, blind in one eye, experienced a miraculous healing when blood dripping from Christ's wounds splashed onto his blind eye and restored his vision. Longinus then became a devoted Christian who was eventually put to death by his fellow soldiers for his faith in Christ.

In Marinduque, those citizens who play the part of the Roman soldiers, called moriones, wear enormous wooden masks with long black beards, open mouths, big black eyes, and pink or red flesh. The moriones also wear colorful helmets called turbantes. This costume helps to disguise the identity of the participants, who take part in the play as a means of expressing religious devotion rather than having fun or showing off. In the Marinduque Passion play, the soldiers capture Longinus three times and each time he manages to escape. The fourth time they seize him Longinus does not escape. The moriones escort him to a scaffold, but Longinus continues to declare his faith in Christ. The moriones behead Longinus, place him on a stretcher, and carry him through the town.

Palm Sunday

Palms are blessed in Filipino churches on Palm Sunday. The joy of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem quickly fades, however, as the observances of Holy Week turn to consider the events associated with Jesus'imprisonment and execution.

Maundy Thursday

On Maundy Thursday some people practice a custom called visita iglesia, which entails visiting as many churches as they can. Others sing the Passion story, that is, the story of Jesus'arrest, trial and execution.

Good Friday

Holy Week observances climax on Good Friday, with the commemoration of Jesus'crucifixion (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). In some places processions of penitentes trudge through the streets beating themselves with whips until they draw blood. They do this in completion of a promise made to God in exchange for some favor or the forgiveness of sins. Each year a few people undertake even greater suffering by having themselves crucified. They remain on the cross only a few minutes before being taken down. Nevertheless this spectacle of suffering attracts crowds of locals and tourists. While some denounce these bloody customs as barbaric, others point to their cultural significance for poor Filipinos. They say that during the centuries of foreign rule Filipino peasants embraced the story of Jesus' anguish as emblematic of their own sufferings at the hands of Spanish landlords and religious authorities. In recent years the urban poor have used these customs to draw attention to their plight. Roman Catholic religious officials have spoken out against the crucifixions but have been unable to put an end to this folk custom.

Other less dramatic Good Friday customs include participating in the Stations of the Cross, meditating on the seven last utterances of Christ, watching Passion plays, and singing or reciting the Passion story (for more on the seven last utterances of Christ, see Three Hours).

Easter Sunday

Many Filipinos celebrate Easter Sunday by attending the salubong (meeting) of the risen Jesus and his mother, Mary (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin). At dawn a figure representing Jesus is placed on top of a carriage and taken to one end of town, while a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is taken to the other end of town. As the two statues move back into town people line up behind them forming a procession. In some places women and girls follow the Blessed Virgin while men and boys follow Jesus. The two statues meet at a place designated as "Galilea." The meeting of these two figures unleashes the joy of Easter. Children dressed as angels burst into song, the veil covering Mary's face falls away, and a flock of doves takes flight. After the two images meet the procession turns toward the church and people enter to attend Easter morning mass.

Further Reading

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1997. Mendoze, Lunita. Festivals of the World: Philippines. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 1999. Tope, Lily Rose R. Philippines. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1991.

Web Site

"Religion-Philippines: Holy Week of Folk Rituals, Gory Spectacle," an article by Johanna Sun, and available through the Inter Press Service at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
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