Angels in the Early Morning

By , on April 2, 2013


A SMALL child hangs in the air. She holds her arms out in the dark morning, grasps a piece of cloth; she lifts it over the head of the Virgin Mary with slow, gentle care.

Bells ring. A fistful of flowers is tossed at the Mother; the air is thick and dark but the courtyard is lit with a hundred candles or more. The child’s dress is stark white in the gloom. Her wings askew; the plastic halo on her head bobbed in the crowd.

“To greet” is what it means, or “to meet,” perhaps. Salubong. It’s an Easter tradition, held before dawn in many churchyards across the Philippines. The Bible holds no mention of it, but to these devotees, Jesus’ resurrection meant that he was reunited with his mother. He appeared to her, in the minds of the Filipino faithful, as he did to his disciples, as he did to Mary Magdalene.

And so: a two-fold procession is arranged in the wee hours of morning. Men form a column led by the image of the Resurrected Christ. In another, women shuffle in the wake of the Mater Dolorosa, the icon clad in a sheer black mourning veil called lambong.

From opposite ends the men and women come together, holding candles aloft in the dark. The Virgin stands beneath an arch, raised up on a dais, flowers at her toes. A choir of schoolgirls in angel garb sings in Latin (the Regina Cæli, the “Queen in Heaven,” the hymn is called). From up high, one girl is lowered on harnesses, takes the veil of mourning from the Mother; thus: her grief is gone. Now Mary is “Our Lady of Joy.” Nuestra Señora de Alegria, reunited with her son. Song, pealing bells mark the moment; in others yet, fireworks. Doves leap to the sky in a frenzy of feather and wing. The procession files into the church. Easter mass begins.

Theologians call it a prime example of Filipino folk Catholicism: a worship of idols. Still, the Church encourages the tradition, unlike the penitensya (fasting, self-flagellation, and nailing oneself to the cross, as is the yearly fanfare in Pampanga). This “reenactment” of Christ’s reunion with his mother signifies (and strengthens, it is said) the central importance of family in Filipino culture. Manila Archbishop Cardinal Tagle himself presided the Easter vigil and mass in Pampanga this year.

Meanwhile, parks, malls, hotels and private subdivisions host their annual egg hunts later in the day: a bit of light fare in the midst of solemn worship; a Western offering in lieu of traditions rooted in Spanish colonial Philippines.

Elsewhere, yet, flights are booked and packed from Boracay to Manila. The North and South highways find themselves bearing the weight of sun-tanned vacationers road-tripping their way to the city, and back to reality. And thus: Holy Week ends. Christ has risen. Monday beckons the next day.