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SEMANA SANTA (Holy Week) by Theodore A. Tan

Semana Santa is the Spanish term for Holy Week, the week preceding Easter in the Catholic calendar.

As a Catholic, I have always been enthralled about the various articulations of faith —  the manner by which Semana Santa  is commemorated by the communities of Catholics throughout the world, by the rich pageantry and the grandeur of faith expressed (through the tapestry of their) VIA cultural and ethnic differences but united in the penitential reflections of the last week of Jesus’ life.  Beginning with His arrival in Jerusalem, celebrated on Palm Sunday, and culminating in His Resurrection on Easter Sunday, the world genuflects to the awesome power of sacrifice and forgiveness.

One of the places in the world where Holy Week is celebrated with much passion is the Philippines. All over the islands, in large towns and tiny villages, the Pabasa, a choral depiction of the Holy Bible by farmers and fishermen is heard throughout the 3 days leading to Good Friday and the processions that weave through narrow streets and squares in the every village and city with statues of saints carried on the shoulders of the devoted.

From around the world,  from the magnificence of Frapani Sicily’s Misteri said to be the longest religious procession in the world (lasting for 24 hours) and the penitent bearers of gold and silver statues depicting the passion and crucifixion of Christ in Leon, Spain’s Procesion de los Pasos to church tableaus throughout Central America and Mexico featuring the Risen Christ, allow us glimpses of people’s expression of appreciation and love for the Son of God becoming man.  Here are the sights of the faithful around the globe commemorating Holy Week.

The Heart of Holy Week (Photo: DANI CARDONA / REUTERS / CORBIS)
Dating back to the 4th century, Semana Santa commemorates events in the days leading up to the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. Celebrated all over Latin America, the observance has its unofficial home base in Spain where penitents hold hundreds of processions around the clock. During marches — like this one in Mallorca which honors Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem — members of cofradías, or brotherhoods, often wear what is called a nazareno or robe consisting of a tunic and a pointed hood to hide their identities as they repent of their sins. The robes were maliciously co-opted in the U.S. by the Ku Klux Klan, which is virulently anti-Catholic.

Men in Black (Photo; ULISES RUIZ / EPA / REUTERS)
In Mexico, Catholics also celebrate Holy Week with various pilgrimages. Churches are decorated with flowers and plants and hundreds of candles on Thursday, drawing a flood of patrons. In some parts of the country, people carry images of Jesus around their villages, washing the pictures with after-shave and hanging them on large crosses on Good Friday. Devotees in Mexico City also traditionally burn an effigy of Judas on Holy Saturday. In the weeks leading up to Semana Santa, people rejoice in the streets, some made up with oil and ash as in this photo of men in Puebla.

Repenting (Photo: MARIO VASQUEZ / AFP / GETTY)
Another tradition in parts of Mexico involves flagellation as a form of voluntary penance using whips or rods. Some members of the Roman Catholic Church have argued against flagellation and self crucifixion as forms of “popular piety” that have no place in modern commemorations of the Passion of Christ.

If Spain is the epicenter of Semana Santa, then Seville is its ground zero. Here pasos — lifesize, painted wooded images — are taken from their shrines and paraded around the city on large floats. Each brotherhood, including La Esperanza de Triana above, has at least two pasos — one representing a scene from the Passion and the other a Virgin (pictured here). The Virgin’s mantle is decorated with gold and jewels and takes nearly two years to create.

This close-up of a statue of the Virgin (in this case, Our Lady of Sorrows), shows the great detail that goes into depictions of the holy. Processions in Valencia, Spain are particularly elaborate; sacred “imagenes” of the Passion of the Christ serve as the centerpieces of several key parades. (Photo: ORBAN THIERRY / AFP / SYGMA)

Dressed for the Beach (Photo: DIEGO TUSON / AFP / GETTY)
As holy as the week is, there are inevitable contrasts between the sacred and the secular, such as in this image of celebrants parading down the beach in Valencia. These gents, members of the Brotherhood of the Holiest Christ the Savior and Protector, are just one of 28 Valencian Brotherhoods. Much like the self-organized “krewes” that celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Brotherhoods are groups that come together and organize processions dedicated to particular scenes in the Passion play.

Thousands of elaborately dressed men, women and children — dressed in 18th and 19th century garb — participate in a tribute to the “Virgen de los Desamparados” (Virgin of the Defenseless). These young ladies are carrying clumps of flowers that they will arrange to form the gigantic robe of Valencia’s patron Virgin.

Under the hood (Photo: ANTON MERES / REUTERS / CORBIS)
Penitents in Algeciras — a town in southern Spain across the bay from Gibraltar — prepare for a Holy Week procession. Easter Sunday marks the end of Semana Santa, when many of the hooded Brotherhoods cast off their hoods to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Black Nazarene of Quiapo –  Although chaotic and a culprit of heavy traffic in Manila, the Black Nazarene Procession every Good Friday and during the feast day of the Basilica, is a hallmark of Filipino culture. It showcases the Filipinos’ more than 200 years of devotion to the Black Nazarene, as well as their undying hope for a better health or future through struggling to get closer to the charred image of Jesus Christ. Usually, only the body of the image, together with a reproduction of the head, is being boarded into a gilded caroza or carriage before being taken out to procession. For the image’s 400th anniversary in 2007, however, both the head and the body were shown to the public.  During the procession, devotees walk on the streets on barefoot to imitate Jesus Christ’s suffering on his way to Mount Calvary. Hundreds of hawkers sell oils, handkerchiefs, T-shirts and other goods bearing the Nazareno’s image. It is believed that these items, especially handkerchiefs, when wiped to a part of the Nazareno, can heal any sort of illness. In fact, many have attested to have received miracles from the statue, but none of these have been officially acknowledged by the Catholic Church. Photo courtesy of AFP)