A makeshift altar forms the backdrop of the Pasiun pabasa. A crucifix or a santo associated with the Passion (Examples: Kristung Makagapus, Desmayadu or Dolorosa) is often installed on top of a linen-covered table adorned with flowers and lit with candles. The reading was once done on the Sundays of Lent: Domingo de Ceniza, Primera Estacion, Domingo Panis, Domingo Lazaro and Domingo de Ramos; nowadays the Pasiun is sung daily.
The Pasiun book is an art form in itself; handscripted on vellum, decorated with calligraphic flourishes and sometimes illustrated with key biblical scenes. Regional versions have been documented from 9 linguistic groups in Luzon and the Visayas. The earliest version is in Tagalog, Gaspar Aquino de Belen’s Mahal na Pasion ni Jesu Christong P.(oon) Natin na Tola; while the most popular is the Pasyong Genesis by Mariano Pilapil (1814) . Being the work of laymen, it was but expected that Spanish friars went up in arms against these books, decrying them for their heretical and profane content.
It took a learned member of the ilustrado clergy to rid the Pasiun of doctrinal errors and stylistic defects. D. Aniceto de la Merced, then parish priest of Candaba and Vicario Foraneo of the secular clergy in Pampanga, wrote the monumental “El Libro de la Vida Historia Sagrada con Santas Reflexiones y Doctrinas Morales para la Vida Cristiana”, now known to us as Pasyong Candaba. Written in Tagalog, de la Merced’s version is more erudite, more coherent, with emphasis on Christian doctrine rather than on characters. He liberally quoted the Scriptures to validate his points, at the same time, condemning folk practices derived from paganism, like the concept of kulam or witchcraft.
The ritual a capella singing of the Pasiun appears to mimic the pattern of church singing, with deep influences from local folk melodies. The style is called melismatic, characterized by highly florid passages in which the original tune is spun out into embellishments. The Pasiun singing may vary from the very plaintive (“managulele”), mournful (“dalit”) to dirge-like (“punebri”). It was not uncommon for pabasa sponsors to seek out veteran singers to lend their voices to the marathon singing which can go on late into the night.
The Pasiun also inspired theatrical plays called “sinakulu”, in which important episodes from the life of Christ are enacted on stage. Biblical characters spewed out lines lifted from Pasiun books, with each presentation taking place from Palm Sunday to Easter.
During the post-war years, simple accompaniment was added to the singing especially where the younger set joined in. Guitars, harmonicas and bandurias lent variation to the plain chant. Of late, the Pasiun has been infused with a more contemporary sound, sung with borrowed melodies as varied as “Voltes 5 Theme” to folksinger Coritha’s nationalistic “Bayan Ko”.
Pacing is critical in singing the Pasiun as the entire book should be completely read out by Biernes Santu (Good Friday). After that, the churches take over with eloquent and reflective dissertations of the Siete Palabras (7 Last Words). The grand finale of the Pasiun reading is marked with a generous feast served by the host of the pabasa, a welcome reward for the sore-throated, who, for the whole season of Lent, sang the passion of the Lord non-stop, to high heavens.
(12 April 2003)