Easter Salubong

The Tagalog word Salúbong refers to the act of meeting, receiving or welcoming someone arriving. In the context of the Holy Week celebration in the Philippines, the Salúbong refers to that popular[1] religious celebration reenacting the meeting between Jesus and Mary, his mother.[2] It is part of the Filipino Christian tradition that goes back to the Spanish colonial period, and is still alive today. It takes the form of a drama and belongs to the constellation of religious dramas and dramatizations which mark the liturgical year as observed in the Philippines.

Easter Salúbong as a Poular Religious Drama

Religious drama may be classified according to length, type and affinity to the liturgy.[3] According to the degree of affinity to the official liturgy, religious drama may be described as “rooted or called for in the liturgy.”[4] Falling under this classification are popular rites that have been integrated into the liturgical celebrations, which initially gave birth to them in view of bringing the liturgy closer to the life of the people. Religious drama may also be described as “derived from the liturgy though not really called for.”[5] Belonging to this group are popular rites that are not really called for in the liturgy and, thus, can be taken independently from the liturgical celebrations which first inspired them. Finally, religious drama may be classified as “not related at all to the liturgy.”[6] Included in this group are expressions of popular religiosity that developed around the feasts listed in the liturgical calendar but which, in the strict sense, are non-liturgical celebrations.[7]

Based on the above classification, the Salúbong falls under the category of the “liturgically derived but not called for” popular religious celebration. It takes the form of popular religious drama reenacting the two moments of the encounter between Jesus and Mary, held within the context of Holy Week celebration of Christ’s passion-death-resurrection. As a Semana Santa popular religious drama that is “not really called for in the liturgy,” the Salúbong has acquired a life of its own outside the official liturgy. Being “liturgically derived,” however, it may be integrated into the liturgy in order to make the official liturgy more alive and relevant through the popular.[8]

For many contemporary Filipinos, the word Salúbong simply refers to the popular religious celebration of the glorious encounter between the Risen Christ and Mary at the crack of Easter dawn.  But in the backdrop of the whole Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Semana Santa tradition in the Philippines, this jubilant meeting at Easter dawn is prefaced by another dramatic Salúbong, the portrayal of that emotionally charged meeting between the suffering Jesus and his weeping mother on the road to Calvary. This Pre-Easter Salúbong, which is celebrated within the context of a penitential procession like that of the Way of the Cross, is less common today compared to Easter Salúbong.[9]

Easter Salúbong: Glorious Encounter between Jesus and Mary

The Easter Salúbong is the traditional Easter ritual that heralds Christ’s resurrection. Celebrated at the crack of dawn, it commemorates the glorious encounter between the Risen Christ and his mother Mary on Easter morn. This popular Easter festivity marks the end of the Easter triduum celebrations in most Catholic churches in the Philippines. Some of the most popular Easter Salúbong in the country are those celebrated in the provinces of Rizal (Angono and Parañaque), Cebu (Minglanilla and Naga), Bulacan (Barasoain and Malolos), Bohol (Loboc) and Marinduque (Gasan).[10]

[1] How did the Easter Salúbong originate?

Tracing the historical roots of this popular Easter ritual is beyond the scope of this study, but a few lines of historical import are in order. First of all, this joyful meeting when Jesus appeared to his mother after his resurrection is found nowhere in the Scripture. Where then did it come from? It could have possibly come from the Spanish popular belief, probably from St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises of the 16th century, through Jesuit missionaries of the Spanish colonial period.[11] It could have also come from the Filipino popular understanding. That the Risen Christ would have appeared first to his grieving mother is really something acceptable to any Filipino who considers it natural, in truth very human, for anyone to be attached to his or her mother. If therefore Christ appeared to his disciples after the resurrection, would he not have appeared also – if not, first – to his grieving mother to turn her sorrow into joy? To the Filipino popular sense, such an appearance of Jesus to his mother and thus their Salúbong seems “imperative.”[12]

There is yet another factor that could have led to the birth of the Salúbong tradition: the commitment of Spanish missionaries to teach the Catholic faith to the Filipino neophytes. In their work of evangelization, the Jesuit missionaries were in fact pioneers in employing dramatic and semi-dramatic forms as effective pedagogical means to teach religion. Fr. Rene Javellana, S.J., commenting on a 17th century Alzina manuscript, quotes Alzina’s words: “I have said so many times here that all these external celebrations, the music, dances, gatherings, fiestas, etc., is another form of disseminating the faith, because among these people the faith enters more through sight… than through hearing, as Saint Paul says.”[13] The Jesuits then, in their zeal to Christianize the natives, made use of different ways of arousing interest in church rituals. One such means was by dramatizing portions of the Passion of Christ during Lent to draw the natives to the church and impress on them the meaning of Christ’s passion. Eventually these dramatizations gave rise to more elaborate dramatizations, more spectacular rituals and ornate processions revolving around the Holy Week liturgy and the Lenten season.[14]

I believe there were at least these three strands – the Spanish popular belief, the Filipino popular sense, and the creative zeal of missionaries to Christianize – which, combined and interlaced, gave rise to the Filipino reinterpretation of Christianity expressed in the popular religious rituals such as the Salúbong.

[2] How then is the Easter Salúbong celebrated?

Although we find several variations of the Salúbong from place to place, it is basically the same everywhere. By and large, the present-day Easter Salúbong begins just before sunrise with two separate processions winding their way from different points of departure through different routes of the town. One group, consisting of men, carries the image of the Risen Christ, clad in white and bearing his triumphal standard. The other, consisting of women, accompanies the image of Mary, Mater Dolorosa, covered with her lambong (black mourning veil). At sunrise, the two processions meet at a predetermined place where a huge four-posted canopy-like bamboo or cement structure called galilea has been erected. The climactic encounter between the Risen Christ and his Mother takes place under this structure. Spectacularly, an angel “descends” (she is lowered) from the “heaven” (ceiling) of the galilea and hovers just above the Mother of Jesus. After singing the “Regina Coeli, laetare; Alleluia, alleluia,” this angelic creature dramatically lifts the veil from Mary. The removal of the mourning veil reveals the white-clad Mother who rejoices in seeing her Risen Son. The choir then sings songs of joy, while confetti fills the air. The crowd applauds in jubilation as everyone hails the Risen Christ.

Javellana, commenting on the Alzina manuscript, gives us an idea of how the “encuentro de Cristo resucitado con su Madre Santissima” was celebrated on Easter Sunday in the mid-17th century.

At four in the morning, two processions form, one composed of men who bear the image of the risen Christ or lacking one the Santo Niño, and another of women who bear the Virgin. The images are customarily borne by young men and women, respectively. All are well-dressed and festooned with flowers or with gold. Men wear garlands of aromatic leaves and flowers. The women begin from an ermita and the men from the church. Both processions meet at a place that has been cleaned and decorated with plant and palm fronds. After greeting each other, the two processions enter the church and the images are placed on a specially decorated table just outside the communion rail. Mass begins as usual, with more solemnity if there are two priests or a low Mass if there is only one.[15]

Comparing the mid-17th century “encuentro” with the present-day Easter Salúbong, one can conclude that initially this Easter dawn ritual consisted of two separate processions, one carrying Christ and the other Mary, meeting at sunrise at a rendezvous to herald Christ’s resurrection. The galilea, the angel descending, the singing of the “Regina Coeli” and the climactic taking away of Mary’s lambong are significant elements added over time, giving witness to the dynamic and popular character of the Salúbong. These added popular elements somehow embody the Filipino struggle to reinterpret and appropriate the Christian faith.

To better appreciate the wealth of popular imagination in the Easter Salúbong, let us now take a closer look at one of the most renowned and spectacular Easter Salúbong traditions in the Philippines: the Easter Salúbong celebrated in Angono, Rizal.[16]

[3] Angono Easter Salúbong

The Angono Salúbong begins at five o’clock in the morning of Easter Sunday. The statue of the Risen Christ, escorted by angels and by two women each playing the role of kapitana (female captain), is led out in procession from the parish church to the site of a 20-foot high galilea where the Easter encounter is to take place. Meanwhile, the image of Mary, with her mourning veil, is led through a different route to the place of encounter. She is escorted by another pair of women each playing the role of tenyenta (female lieutenant).[17] The image of Mary is also accompanied by the images of the tres Marias – Maria Madalena with a flask of perfume, Maria Salome with a censer, and Maria Jacobe with a whisk broom.[18] Parishioners and devotees trail the images en route the galilea, while through windows or along the streets others watch the encounter as it dramatically unfolds. High up from the “heaven” of the galilea hangs a wooden structure shaped like a puso ng saging (banana blossom). Inside this beautifully adorned giant puso ng saging (or simply puso) is a secure compartment where a child dressed as an angel remains hidden. Huge wooden birds embellished with tissue paper resembling feathers are also set high hanging from the galilea.

As both processions reach the galilea, the images of the Risen Christ and his Mother are greeted by the people with applause, while the band is playing. As Christ meets his Mother, the pagbati (greeting) immediately ensues. The tenyenta gracefully performs her dance of greeting.[19] Next, the kapitana steps up and delivers a poem popularly called dicho in traditional melodious style narrating Christ’s resurrection. At the end of her poem, she triumphantly declares: “Kaya’t nabuksan ang pinto ng langit.” (Thus, heaven’s gate has been opened.) At this cue, huge colorful wooden birds then swoop down to open the petals of the puso. The angel hidden inside the puso is then revealed. She sings the “Regina Coeli, Laetare” while showering the people with colorful confetti. Later, the angel is lowered down. Hovering over the black-clad Virgin Mother of Jesus, the angel removes Mary’s veil marking the end of her mourning.[20] As the angel “ascends” (pulled up), the kapitana proclaims in jubilation: “Iwawagayway ko itong bandera bilang pagsasaya, wika’y: ‘Resurrexit! Alleluya! Viva!’” (“I will wave this standard high as a sign of rejoicing, saying: ‘He has risen! Alleluia!’”)[21]

[4] Easter Salúbong with Other Variations

In several towns of the Tagalog Region, the ceremonial greeting pagbati, which takes place just before the actual unveiling of Mary, takes a different form. The pagbati or simply bati (greeting) dramatizes the joyful encounter of the Risen Christ and Mary through the lively dance of greeting performed by a young woman and a young man. As the couple dance joyfully, the young woman waves the light blue flag representing Mary, while her partner holds the flag of the Agnus Dei representing Christ.[22] In Sampaloc, Manila, the unveiling is performed by a fowl. A pigeon clutches Mary’s veil and flies off with it. Anyone who finds the veil and returns it to the church wins a cash prize. In Minglanilla, Cebu, of the Central Visayan Region, the effigy of Judas is burned before the unveiling, while several angels (not merely one) “descend” for the unveiling and the image of the Risen Christ on a platform “ascends” (pulled up on a cable) to “heaven” (church tower) after the unveiling.[23]

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[1] Francisco Demetrio speaks of the pasyon (verse narrative of Christ’s passion which involves communal chanting) and sinakulo (passion play) as paraliturgical services. By “paraliturgical services” Demetrio means the “indigenous extensions of the Liturgy into the life of the people outside the walls of the church.” Francisco R. Demetrio, “Filipino Folk Memory and the Pasyon,” Asian Pacific Quarterly of Cultural and Social Affairs 4, no. 4 (Spring 1973): 54.

[2] There are two types of Salúbong: the Easter Salúbong, which reenacts the glorious meeting of the Risen Christ and Mary on Easter morn, and the Pre-Easter Salúbong, which dramatizes the sorrowful encounter of Christ carrying the cross and his grieving mother.

[3] Doreen G. Fernández, Palabas: Essays on Philippine Theater History (Quezon City, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1996), 10-11.

[4] The dramatization of the “washing of the feet” within the Lord’s Supper liturgy of Holy Thursday would be a case in point.

[5] Panúnulúyan, i.e., the re-enactment of the events surrounding Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem in search for lodging on the eve of the birth of Jesus would be a case in point.

[6] Santrakrusan, i.e., a festivity held in May commemorating St. Helena’s finding of the cross, which developed around the feast of the finding of the Holy Cross once celebrated on the 3rd of May is a case in point.

[7] On the classification of the religious dramatizations, see Fernández, Palabas, 168-69; Nicanor G. Tiongson, Kasaysayan at Estetika ng Sinakulo at Ibang Dulang Pangrelihiyon sa Malolos [History and Aesthetics of the “Sinakulo” and Other Religious Drama in Malolos] (Quezon City, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1975), 28-50.

[8] The Jesuit Communications Foundation gives some suggestions on how to incorporate the Pabasa and Pasyon into the liturgy. It also proposes an Easter Vigil celebration that incorporates the Salúbong and the Sayaw sa Cirio Pascual (Paschal Candle dance). See Jesuit Communications Foundation, Inc., Krus at Muling Pagkabuhay: Gabay sa Katutubong Pagdiriwang ng Liturhiya ng mga Mahal na Araw [Cross and Resurrection: A Guide to the Indigenous Celebration of the Holy Week Liturgy] (Quezon City, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University, 2003).

[9] In fact, the Easter Salúbong has become even more popular today, while the Pre-Easter one remains only in few Tagalog towns like Malolos (Bulacan) and Paete (Laguna).

[10] Cordero-Fernando and Zialcita, eds., Cuaresma (Lent), photography by Noli I. Yamsuan, Jr. (Makati City: Bookmark, Inc. and Quezon City: Bungang Araw, 2000), 222.

[11] St. Ignatius of Loyola himself, in his Spiritual Exercises, names Jesus’ appearance to Mary right after his resurrection as the first apparition of the Risen Christ: “He appeared to the Virgin Mary. Though this is not mentioned explicitly in the Scripture it must be considered as stated when Scripture says that He appeared to many others.” Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises, 299.

[12] Fernández, Palabas, 169.

[13] Rene B. Javellana, “Celebration,” in Wood and Stone for God’s Greater Glory, revised edition (unpublished MS: 2007), 27-28 (according to the pagination of the manuscript of this cited chapter). In the upcoming revised edition of Wood and Stone for God’s Greater Glory, Javellana dedicates a chapter on celebration (Chapter 5: Celebration) where, among others, he comments on the Alzina manuscript. Alzina, according to Javellana, paints “a more comprehensive picture of village rituals, liturgical practice and festivities” in the Visayas in the middle of the 17th century. This picture gives us a clue on how the Lenten festivities might have been observed and celebrated in the 17th century all over the Philippines, particularly in the Jesuit missions. Javellana cites the Alzina manuscript published as Historia sobrehatural de las islas bisayas: segunda parte de la historia de las islas e indios de bisayas, del Padre Alzina, Manila: 1668-1670 in Victoria Yepes ed., Colección biblioteca de historia de América 18 (Madrid: Consejo Superior de investigaciones científicas, 1998).

[14] Fernández, Palabas, 10; Cordero-Fernando and Zialcita eds., preface to Cuaresma.

[15] Javellana, “Celebration,” 23.

[16] Located 30 km. east of Manila, Angono is a 1st class urban municipality of Rizal, Philippines. In 2000, it registered a population of 74,668 people. A simple pueblo in 1766 that became a municipality in 1935, Angono has achieved substantial economic progress over the years. As the “Art Capital of the Philippines,” Angono was home to two National Artist of the Philippines awardees, Carlos V. ‘Botong’ Francisco for Painting (1973) and Lucio D. San Pedro for Music (1991). It is also the site of the Angono Peteroglyphs, the Philippines’ oldest prehistoric work of art.

[17] Kapitana (female captain) and tenyenta (female lieutenant) are titles which reflect the Spanish colonial origin of the Easter Salúbong. In this context, however, they are not military titles. Rather, they simply refer to specific and important roles played in the Salúbong. Filway’s Philippine Almanac, ed. Virgilio S. Almario, 2nd printing of 2nd edition (Makati, Philippines: Filway Marketing, Inc., 1995), s.v. “Semana Santa Rituals,” 170; CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, CD-ROM ed. (Philippines: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1998), s.v. “Salubong.”

[18] In Malolos, Bulacan, the images of Peter and John accompany Mary with the Tres Marias. In Santa Isabel, Bulacan, the image of Peter is barred from accompanying Mary as “punishment” for having denied Christ. In Silay City, Negros Occidental, the Blessed Virgin “walks alone” (La Soledad). Fernández, Palabas, 169-70.

[19] The Alzina manuscript, in describing the practices in the Visayas, refers to a joyful dance that accompanies the Easter greeting announcing the resurrection. Javellana suggests that the pagbati probably goes back to this mid-17th century Easter greeting dance. Javellana, “Celebration,” 23.

[20] Folk superstition has it that the black veil has to be completely taken off from the image of the Blessed Mother or misfortune will befall the people. Cecille Suerte Felipe and Felix Delos Santos, “Salubong Marks Easter Sunday in RP,” Philippine Headline News Online, March 31, 2002, under http://www.newsflash.org/2002/03/hl/hl015457.htm (accessed February 12, 2007).

[21] For more on Angono Salúbong, see Fernández, Palabas, 171; Philippine Almanac; “Semana Santa;” and CCP Encyclopedia, “Salubong.”

[22] Javellana, “Celebration,” 23n9; CCP Encyclopedia, “Salubong.”

[23] Ibid. For more variations regarding the Easter Salúbong, see Tiongson, Kasaysayan at Estetika, 36-37; Cordero-Fernando and Zialcita, eds., Cuaresma, 222-38; and Fernandez, Palabas, 170.

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