Friday, April 06, 2012

Penitencia Procession

One of the traditions I was so glad to leave behind in the Philippines was the Penitencia procession.  Let’s paint a picture.  During Holy Week, the Roman Catholic church (at least I assumed it was the church) would ring these somber bells on a set schedule.  My grandparents lived in a town visited by tourists for the Penitencia, and my sisters and I would be staying with them during that week.  I didn’t know why at the time, but I can only guess it’s because we had school breaks.  During Holy Week, people would flock the churches.  Vendors would set up shops, yes, even within church grounds. 

Sidetrack: Even as a little Catholic girl, I didn’t understand that because the story of Jesus overturning vendor stalls stuck in my mind.  Didn’t anyone learn anything?  Why are the people of God doing what God didn’t want them to do?  Why is the church allowing them?  I didn’t get it.  And it was a lot of these stacked up “I don’t get it” moments that made it easy for me to me turn away from Catholicism.

Anyway, the culmination of those bells or Holy Week landed on Good Friday during the Penitencia.  I’m actually not sure if that is the culmination, but it’s the most popular for sure.  Do they ever reenact the resurrection of Jesus?  I don’t know.

Picture the Macy’s Day Parade.  Thousands of people crammed on the sidewalks.  Replace the floats, character balloons, and marching bands with men carrying crosses, men flogging themselves with whips, sticks, and chains, and a crowd of people following behind them carrying rosaries.  Meanwhile, the spectators pressed in to see, while I cringed away.

Another thing I didn’t get.  These self-flagellations are brutal.  All those men publically flogging themselves until their backs are flowing with blood.  And for what?  To what end?  They told me it’s to show their penance for their sins.  And I thought, “Isn’t that what confession is for?”  Isn’t that what the Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s are for?  And how many times are they going to do it?  Every year?  Some men did.  And what did they do the rest of the year? Sin until the next Holy Week? It’s like a cycle that will never end. 

But it’s not a cycle.  It’s a tradition.
By definition, a cycle doesn't end, but you can end a tradition.

The Penitencia should end, because no amount of public (or private) self-flagellation will ever atone for one’s sins.  Shoot, that’s not even how they atoned for sins in the Old Testament.  It’s a useless and painful act.  Nothing we do atones for our sins.  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV).

“You were saved by faith in God, who treats us much better than we deserve. This is God’s gift to you and not anything you have done on your own. It isn’t something you have earned, so there is nothing you can brag about” (Ephesians 2:8-9, CEV).

Nothing we do can save us. Not good deeds.  Not trying to go through what Jesus did. Penitencia is a useless and painful act.  I didn’t like it as a little girl.  I don’t like it now.  So I’m disgusted to have seen it today, on the sidewalks of Calaveras Blvd.  It wasn’t as intense as the ones I saw in the Philippines, but I still don’t like it.

I first saw the crowd of people crossing the street from city hall.  Then I saw men dressed as Roman soldiers.  Then I saw a man carrying a wooden cross on his back.  Then I saw it.  Roman soldiers flogging a half dressed man who was exaggerating his falling and crawling on the sidewalk.  But his back was beet red.  Meanwhile the throng of people followed from behind.

Was the red torso just makeup?  Exaggerated like his acting?  I hope so.  But the message was conveyed.  I don’t like it one bit.  What did you hope of achieving by showing this one little moment in time?  That Jesus died?  If Jesus stayed dead, so would we.  Easter isn’t only about the death of Jesus.  It’s also about His resurrection.  Where will people hear the good news?  Are you showing them the good news?  Are people seeing your procession getting the message that Jesus is alive?  That He conquered death?  That He is risen, and we have hope by believing in a living God?

Or is the procession not about that?  Not about sending a message to others.  Is it about your own spirituality?  If so, read your Bible.  But either way, you failed.  You failed to convey the true meaning of Easter.  And you failed to atone for your own sins.

So let’s move on beyond traditions that are best left behind in the past.  Let’s create new traditions where the celebration is about faith, grace, hope, love, and the risen Christ.

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