by Yolanda Sotelo
(originally published on the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 3 April 2012)
BANI, Pangasinan—In a cramped room inside a shack at the back of the Catholic church in Bani, Pangasinan, lies a religious treasure for the town—a life-size ivory statue of “Santo Bangkay” (Dead Jesus Christ). The Santo Bangkay is a detailed rendition of Jesus Christ when he was taken down from the cross, complete with blood oozing from his face down to his chest, with holes in the hands and feet where the nails were driven, and wounds in his knees.
“It has been with our parents when they got married in 1932,” Norma Optinario, 76, says. Norma and her sister, Herlyn, 64, are the keepers of the statue.
The sisters say the statue was given to their father by the family of a military official. They do not know from what country the icon came from, or how old it is, only saying it has been with their family for a very long time.
The Optinarios’ house was burned in 1942, but the fire stopped before it reached the area where the icon was being kept, they say.
Days before Good Friday, the sisters’ house comes alive with preparations of the Santo Bangkay for the religious procession along the streets of this agricultural town. Already, a white garment adored with sequins and silver thread is waiting to clothe the statue.
“Every year, we prepare a new garment for what they lovingly call Apo Santo Bangkay. This year, it will be outfitted with white, but mostly, it is garbed in maroon. We also decorate the ‘karo’ (coach where the icon is laid),” Norma says. The icon’s long, curly hair, is changed every five years.
In another part of the town, at the front yard of a house destroyed by a typhoon, a steel carriage is set to be painted and adorned with different flowers for the Good Friday procession. This replaced an old wooden carriage in 1981, Dennis Orilla, 44, says. Orilla inherited the carriage, along with the responsibility to prepare it for the procession, from his parents.
Every Maundy Thursday, the houses of the Optinario and Orilla families are full with family members and friends to prepare the Santo Bangkay, the coach and the carriage. All expenses are contributed by relatives and residents.
“It is an affair where our families and residents join hands in staging. Church and local officials are not meddling with this religious activity,” Herlyn says.
At noon on Good Friday, the carriage, with the Santo Bangkay on top, is pulled around the streets of Barangay Poblacion.
“The religious fervor is similar to that shown in the procession of Quiapo’s Black Nazarene, although in the case of Bani, only residents join the activity,” says Marietchu Natividad, head of Poblacion village.
“The devotees would try to go up the carriage or hold on to the rope that pulls it,” Orilla says.
At 3 p.m., the Santo Bangkay is taken to the Catholic Church for a Mass. It is left near the altar for a vigil and “agep,” a customary kissing of the icon by devotees, until midnight.