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Bacolod City, Philippines Monday, April 15, 2019
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with Eli F.J. Tajanlangit

Lenten art, tourism

Rock & Refuge

Yesterday, the Catholic world celebrated Palm Sunday, which recalls Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem marked by people lining up the streets and waving palm fronds, an ancient symbol of victory of the spirit over the flesh, which is at the heart of Lent.

Adopted and woven into Filipino culture, these palm fronds are now the young leaves of coconut trees, cut, shaped, bent, and arranged into waving tools more beautiful than any flaglet could be. Which was where my wandering mind strayed into as I watched throngs of the faithful carrying and waving these arrangements in churchyards and into the churches.

Looking closely, I realized how intricate these were, and how deft the hands that have made them. Seeing them reminds me of the awe-inspiring Balinese floral offerings that are part and parcel of that Indonesian island’s culture

These coconut leaf offerings, like the Balinese floral arrangements are nothing short of art, if art wasn’t defined in the Western context – I mean, what difference do these coconut leaf arrangements have compared to say, blown glass? Sure, these leaves soon dry, unlike glass, but why can’t they be considered art, considering they are beautiful things made by hands, conceived by the human spirit, and representing the sublime? The answer is simple. They are not available in the West where the thinkers who defined what art, is have not seen them at all.

But just because the West has not declared they are art does not mean they are not.

The fact is, this Lenten way with the palm frond and how it assumes religious and Biblical character, is just one of the many art and artistic objects that Lent shines a bright light on. The church rituals are another because they really can be classified as performance art, the movements representing what people deeply believe in.

Of course there is the Taltal, the Passion of our Lord played out in the streets. Bacolod celebrates taltal, I think, annually, organized by the San Sebastian Cathedral. The street play begins usually at the steps of the old Capitol where Jesus is condemned to death. Then it moves through the streets where the scenes from Calvary are played out like the meeting of Simon of Cyrene and Jesus; of Jesus and Veronica, of Jesus and the seven crying women. It usually ends at the public plaza where the final drama of the crucifixion is played out. Most of the actors here are volunteers and amateurs, but they sure can deliver stunning performances. I think the fact that they do this as an expression of their faith, makes their acting more heartfelt and refreshingly original than those who went to acting schools.

And then there is the procession of the carrozas, an old tradition that showcases Filipino artistry at its best: how the carrozas are designed and the images dressed, and how during the procession, they move through throngs of believers all performing their individual acts, praying, singing, or reading old litanies. These processions can be hair-raising, very touching experiences, especially to the foreigners who are seeing them for the first time. No fiesta nor festival in the Philippines can come close to this Good Friday procession in terms of engaging people.

Which leads us to the next question: Why haven't we used Lent as a tourism draw? Some people might think: turning this religious celebration into a festival will demean it, and even destroy it. Of course not. It can be a festival without giving up its blessed and solemn character. After all, its main attraction is really the faith that animates its activities. Besides, this can only be done if the Church is left alone to control the events so they continue to hew very closely to the parameters set by the Catholic faith.

The taltal for example is a unique expression of our faith that can attract tourists the way the Ati-atihan, Sinulog and Dinagyang bring them in. By the way, this is also a pitch for support, especially financial, from the government – paging DOT- for its production.

Of course, we should also remember that the Bible narrates that Palm Sunday was preceded by a festival in Jerusalem and the Carnival in Rio and the Mardi Gras in New Orleans both sprang from Shrove Tuesday celebrations which are held a day before Lent begins.*

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