By Gemma Cruz Araneta
Forty days after Easter Sunday, we were all gathered at that quaint but charming church in the heart of Villa Escudero, a centuries-old hacienda nestled between Tiaong and San Pablo. For many reasons, it is probably the last of the grand estates that evokes history and cherished traditions. My cousins and I, descendants of Jose Rizal’s sisters, were welcomed by Don Ado Escudero and ushered to a front pew.
As far as I can remember, the feast of the Ascencion is celebrated at Villa Escudero with unrivaled pomp and pageantry, enhanced with a generous dose of religious syncretism that has, in the past, displeased the local clergy. The church must have been designed with this spectacular liturgical event in mind because behind the main altar is an elevated area big enough for a symphony orchestra and a choir.
A bishop from Bulacan celebrated High Mass, assisted by the parish priest and six other priest con-celebrators seated in a row of carved chairs. The bishop’s chair was the most ornate, a veritable throne with gold leaf.
The altar was decked with fresh flowers, ropes of fragrant sampaguitas, and candelabras of various sizes, all antique and part of the family’s heritage collection. The life-like, bare chested statue of Jesus Christ of the Ascencion, with its own silver carroza, stood at the right side of the alter. There were other religious icons on the Gospel side, notably a morena Blessed Virgin with black wavy hair.
The bishop in full regalia walked down the aisle to the altar escorted by a dozen acolytes in white embroidered tunics. He sat on his throne after which the acolytes fussed over him, removing the mitre, adjusting the scarlet beanie, taking the golden staff. After all, a bishop is a prince of the Church and that was how he was treated during High Mass.
The UST Symphonic Orchestra and choir, clouds of incense, the hymns and invocations chanted at specific parts of the Mass lifted us to great spiritual heights. Suddenly, it occurred to me that if we were still in the 17th and 18th century, the members of the clergy celebrating the Mass would all be Spaniards, fair-skinned with high noses, looking exactly like the statues of Jesus Christ and the saints. The Mass would be in indecipherable Latin and the homily in Spanish, or probably in Tagalog rendered unintelligible by a thick Castillian accent. No matter, everyone understood what was going on, even the colonized indio who was most certainly enthralled, awed, and intimidated by that dramatically inscrutable ceremony. It must have been like magic to be in the presence of those god-like men who had your present and future in their hands. That was what it must have felt like to be an indio in those days.
During the Offertory, townsfolk came in bearing bunches of fresh vegetables, fruits, and coconuts; they danced up and down the aisle to native music and laid the harvest at the bishop’s feet. Then members of the Escudero family offered candles, flowers; Rosalie Escudero Blume brought the chalice. My Basque cousin-in-law couldn’t help but whisper: “ I don’t think it’s appropriate to have folk dancers during Mass.” I said that was part of the Offertory, they’re thanking the Lord for a good harvest. But, if the Santo Oficio (Holy Inquisition) were still in operation, we would all be burnt at the stake.
During the Consecration, as the Bishop pronounced the mystic words of transubstantiation, we heard strains of the Philippine National Anthem coming from outside the church, played by the local band. That is cultural syncretism. Don Ado later explained, it was a Spanish custom during colonial times; they played the hymn of the kingdom, but today when we offer the country to God, we play the Philippine National Anthem. Only in Villa Escudero!