The Moriones Festival

 

NAILED TO A WOODEN CROSS

 

The Moriones Festival – an event held annually in the island of Marinduque in the Philippines, is a week-long celebration which starts on Holy Monday and culminates on Easter Sunday. Reenacted in pantomime, it is based on the story of a hardened and battle-scarred soldier blind in one eye who underwent an epiphany at the foot of dying man nailed to a wooden cross.

 

Marcus Longinus was the name of this Roman centurion. It was he who witnessed the entire proceedings of the sentencing, scourging and eventual crucifixion of Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth) on the mount of Golgotha outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem. At the time, traditional Jewish religious practice required that all executions had to take place outside this holy city, something which the Romans appear to have generally honoured.

 

Posted to the troubled outpost of Judea, Longinus commanded a unit composed of locally-recruited troops mostly Samaritans and some Syrians. He led his unit as part of the mixed cohort which provided security for the Imperial Legate and Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

 

Since they were not authorized by the Roman administration to carry out the death sentence, the Jewish High Council – which consisted of high priests and elders of the Sanhedrin, brought to Pilate the case they made against Jesus – the itinerant preacher charged with blasphemy and an unusual healer who ignited a spark of controversy in the fire of hatred, deceit, and betrayal that was always burning in the ancient city of Jerusalem.

 

UTTERLY BEREFT OF ANY HONOUR

 

During the proceedings, however, Pilate found him innocent, unable to find or even contrive a reason to condemn the man who stood before him. It also seemed to Longinus who along with other centurions present that the case being heard by Pilate was a simple religious disagreement and that Romans should not get involved in it. But Pilate feared the crowds so he let the Jewish audience decide Jesus’ fate instead. Stirred by the Jewish chief priests, the crowds declared, “Crucify him!” The torture of the man born in Bethlehem was about to begin.

 

For the Roman officers ordered to super vise the scourging of Jesus, it appeared unseemly. It was utterly bereft of any ho nour of true battle against other soldiers. Longinus felt that the whole brutal exer cise was a cruel joke. But the order had been given and by Roman law had to be carried out.

 

After the flogging of Jesus, Pilate tried one last time to avoid having to execute the man from Nazareth. He offered to spare him in exchange for the life of Bar abbas – a man who was a legitimate terro rist threat to Roman Empire interests in Judea. But, the growing Jewish crowd objected loudly. The weak-willed Pilate caved in, spared Barabbas and conveyed the decision of the crowed to crucify Jesus in the name of the Emperor even as he afterwards washed his hands from the whole distasteful affair. When final sentencing was pronounced Longinus was assigned to head the crucifixion detail. He took just four soldiers with him to accomplish the sordid task.

 

For three long hours, a number of observers including a woman who appeared to be the itinerant preacher’s mother and a young man who might be one of his followers were balanced out by a group of hecklers who mocked the condemned man. Even one of the common thieves who were also being executed joined in the heckling. Yet in spite of being humiliated the preacher responded with grace and love to those who mocked him. In his dying hours he offered forgiveness and even promised eternal life to a condemned thief who hung on another cross be side him.

 

WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?

 

It was probably an unusual day on the Mount of Golgotha. The skies grew darker as noon approached and the preacher made a number of chilling statements from his place on the cross – the most poignant being an anguished cry in Aramaic “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (“My God my God why have you forsaken me?”).

 

Of the seven recorded sayings of Jesus on the cross recounted in Scripture, this particular utterance struck Longinus the most. He believed this man was innocent of any crime under Roman or any other body of laws which men have contrived. The cry of abandonment to a father appeared to Longinus to be a most painful betrayal of love for a son. If Jesus was the Son of God, why would he say this? Was it is possible that at this exact moment on the cross, when Jesus bore all of humanity’s sin on their behalf, that God the Father, in a sense, turned His back on his Son? Was it because the Father was too holy and pure to look upon the summation of all evil swirling around the cross and that spiritually, he could bear no more and turned his gaze away from his own son’s excruciatingly un bearable pain?

 

Longinus knew full well that the physical pain of crucifixion was immense, but the spiritual one involving both the act of and pain of abandonment together must have been far greater for any father to bear and being in charge of exe cuting the order for putting Jesus of Nazareth to death, he was unwittingly part of that process. It was his sublime moment of catharsis, his awakening.

 

FOR THE SALVATION OF MANKIND

 

Having witnessed Jesus’ excrucia ting agony at the end of seven long hours, he could bear it no more. In an act of mercy he pierced Jesus’ side with a lance, a coup de grâce – the decisive deathblow ad ministered to end the suffering of one so mortally wounded.

 

Some moments later, a sense of deep regret and resignation des cended upon Longinus when he heard the crucified preacher cry out “it is finished” and died. At that precise moment, and without thinking so much as having said it, he called out to his men and to those remaining at the site saying, “truly this man was the Son of God.”

 

The account of Longinus – which is found in the pseudepigraphal Gospel of Nico demus that was appended to the apocryphal Acts of Pilate, is not actually part of the Bible because no name for this Roman soldier is actually mentioned in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of the New Testament. Even then, it is said that his conversion to Christianity was hastened by three events – his own personal experience at Golgotha; as one of the guards of Christ’s tomb who witnessed the Resurrection; and after, through the kindness of one Yəhô’ēl bar Lamech who instructed him about the prophetic coming of Christ who would bear all sin resulting from Adam’s grievous fall from grace and for which he would willingly sacrifice himself at the cross in atonement for the salvation of mankind.

 

Longinus’ act of conversion to Christianity earned him the ire of his fellow centurions who eventually caught up to him. While in their hands, he revealed how he was miraculously cured and how he himself, had witnessed the Resur rection. As he was praising the Lord, one of his captors struck his neck with a sword and parted his head from his body.

 

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Legend has grown over the years to the point that Longinus, who is said to have converted to Christianity after the Crucifixion and lost his life in the process, is now traditionally venerated as a saint in the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, and several other Christian communions. In the southern communities of Valencia in Spain, there are celebrations called La Festival de los Moros y Cristianos (the Moors and Christians Festival), but these instead commemorate the capture of the city of Va lencia by the Moors and the subsequent Christian reconquest having occurred from the 8th through the 15th centuries AD. Some quarters assert that the word “Morio nes” is derived from the Spanish word “Moros” while others postulate its meaning as a possible derivation of the Spanish word “murió“, meaning death or “morion” meaning “mask” or “visor”, a part of the medieval Roman armour which covers the face. It is only the Moriones Festival as celebrated by the Marinduqueños which makes it stand out from the rest during the observance of Lent by Christendom each year as the artistic and colorful attires and masks worn are unique expressions of folk art and local ingenuity. In the Philippines, the practice – itself having been made an integral part of Lenten church rituals for over 200 hundred years, has still today undergone very little change and the five towns involved become one gigantic stage during the entire length of festival.

 

PLAYFUL MISCHIEF AND MAYHEM

 

The Moriones Festival in the Philippine island of Marinduque plays host to a vibrant weeklong event occurring simultaneously in each of this province’s five major towns of Boac, Gasan, Buenavista, Sta. Cruz and Mogpog. It is a religious-inspired festival which dates back to 1807 when a certain Padre Dionisio Santiago – parish priest of the town of Mogpog, is credited to have come up with the idea in order to get his parishioners more interested in the religious activities of Lent.

 

Throughout the duration of the festival period, local people don masks, capes, swords, spears and other paraphernalia depicting Ro man soldiers. They are transform ed into “morions” as they roam the streets causing playful mis chief and mayhem.

 

Part of the rituals that are carried out is the “Habulan” (or chase) where those depicting the Roman soldiers hunt for a person dressed up as Longinus, who they pursue in a chaotic and nearly comical hide-and-seek chase all over town. But, there is also a serious side to the Moriones Festival as well.

 

During the “Pabasa” (or recitation) phase, the painful agony of Christ’s passion is read out aloud in verse. His final hours of suffering are also commemorated du ring the part of the festival known as “Via Crucis” (or way of the Cross) and fla gellants, known as “antipos”, inflict suffering upon themselves as a form of atone ment. At this time it is common to see processions involving men inflicting bodily pain by whipping themselves, while others carry heavy wooden crosses.

 

The colourful masks, costumes and accompanying props worn by local towns men to disguise their real identities is done so as their participation serves as an act of humble religious devotion rather than an attempt to garner public recog nition. Longinus escapes from the Roman soldiers three times in this Marin duque Passion play, but cannot evade capture on the fourth attempt. As his captors lead him to a scaffold, he continues to declare his faith in Christ. After this phase called the Pugutan (or beheading), the tradition and recounting of the story as a vow of penance and expression of thanksgiving called the “Santo Sepulcro” is observed, whereby old women exchange verses based on the Bible as they stand in wake of the dead Christ. After three o’clock on Good Friday afternoon, the Moriones Festival passion play finally comes to a splendid close.

 

|Part-1 | Part-2 | Part-3 | Part 4 |

 

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Filed under Arts and Culture, Filipinos in New Zealand, Filipinos in Wellington, Special Feature, Spititual Matters

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