Holy Season: Lent in the Philippines

Did you know? The Philippines is the only Christian nation in Asia with more than 86% of Filipinos identifying as Roman Catholic so it’s no wonder why Catholicism has a great sphere of influence in the country’s decision-making. One very prevalent example is the Philippines is one of the only two countries (the other being Vatican City) where divorce is not legalized. Another is how we have dedicated national holidays to celebrate our faith like Christmas and Lent.

Celebrating 500 years of Catholic Christianity in the Philippines
Filipino Catholics in Vatican City celebrate 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines. Catholic is what most Filipinos recognize as their religion and a signature of their Christianity. However, there are many non-sectarian church denominations that celebrate the Lent Season according to their biblical belief in a different way.

Lent, for those who aren’t familiar, is a 46-day season in the liturgical (Catholic) calendar for repentance when believers reminisce how Jesus died on the cross for their sins and rose from the dead. True enough, Catholics all around the world celebrate this but it’s a really big deal in the Philippines. It starts with Ash Wednesday, where believers make time to go to mass and have a cross made of ash (from burning palm leaves from last year’s Palm Sunday) marked on their foreheads. This represents repentance as the person marking the ashes says “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” On this day, you will notice heavy traffic and a lot of people crowding in churches to join this event. Despite Wednesday being a weekday, people dedicate their lunch breaks or go straight away to church after work and this shows how important this event is to their faith. This is also a day of fasting and abstinence so most people don’t eat red meat on this day as a form of sacrifice.

Burning Palms for Ash Wednesday
Burning palms for Ash Wednesday and Penitence are traditions of most Catholics in the Philippines.

Lent, in general, is a time for prayer, fasting, repentance, and sacrifice. Although it is not strictly implemented, Catholics are encouraged to fast. Fasting doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of food. It can be in the form of social media, alcohol, or bad habits, for example. The point there is to sacrifice something to glorify God. Probably one of the most common sacrifices would be the abstinence of red meat or meat, in general, every Friday. Pork is a staple dish in Filipino cuisine so this is a great feat for many Filipino believers.

The last week of Lent called “Holy Week” is where the highlights are. There is an open secret among Filipinos, especially the non-religious and non-believers, that it’s a perfect time to take a vacation as it is a four-day weekend. Although flights are usually expensive during this time, they still take advantage of the big chunk of time. However, those who stay true to their beliefs would say it feels wrong to be merrymaking during a supposed time for mourning. However, in the end, it’ll be up to the person and their beliefs to make the call.

“Maundy Thursday” is a day of abstinence, fasting, and sacrifice intensify as this represents the day before Jesus was crucified. Believers attend mass which usually has a reenactment of the Last Supper (this is also broadcasted on many TV stations), and they practice Visita Iglesia where they usually walk to different churches as a custom. Although the usual tradition is to visit seven churches, there are others who visit fourteen to represent the fourteen stations of the cross.

Black Friday in the Philippines

The next and probably the most important day would be “Good Friday”. This represents the day Jesus died (which is at 3 PM). At this point, many pray and usually intensify their abstinence and fasting. Usually, to make up for the fact that they can’t eat meat, most Filipinos cook ‘binignit’ (or wit-wit or bilo-bilo in other dialects). This is a soup dish made with glutinous rice, ube (purple yam), taro, bananas, tapioca submerged in coconut milk (I swear, it’s super good!) On this day, attending mass also has a reenactment of Jesus’ suffering and many devotees even beat themselves bloody and even crucify themselves to a cross to commemorate the pain Jesus went through. In fact, this event attracts thousands of tourists yearly as many cannot fathom the extent of Filipino faith.

On Black Saturday, the fasting, abstinence, and sacrifice continue. The next day is finally a happy day and end of Lent: Easter Sunday, the day Jesus resurrected. Many Christians flock to a church full of joy. After all, Jesus is alive and Lent is over. For the kids, most establishments offer Easter egg hunts, to mirror Western tradition but many Filipinos never forget the true essence of this day. It is truly a happy day of blessing and celebration.

This is one of the many times you’ll expect to see extreme religious devotion when you visit the Philippines. If ever you decide to go from February to April, this is one holy season and a very traditional part you’ll expect to witness and whatever religion you’re coming from, you would be amazed. 

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