Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for Christians, which includes 40 days of fasting that ends with Easter. In the Philippines, a major Catholic country, the practice of Ash Wednesday is even more pronounced.

E wanted me to experience it for myself, so we hopped into a jeepney in the early morning from Manila to Antipolo Cathedral, in neighbouring Rizal province.

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I haven’t really done a proper post about Jeepneys. They’re colourful, loud, smoke-belching things. Most are painted in bright hues; some sport famous political figures such as Jose Rizal, others movie stars, angels, Jesus.. even Pokemon. This creative, outlandish and sometimes downright bizarre streaks make the jeepney so inherently charming. They are so entrenched in Filipino culture that it’s difficult to see them ever being banned, despite the obvious pollution from their diesel engines and the massive traffic jams they cause (from stopping and picking up passengers everywhere). It’s part and parcel of life in the Philippines.

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Ride took over an hour.

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Like many churches in Manila, Antipolo Cathedral was built at the height of Spanish proselytization in the 1600s and housed the Marian image of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage. Set on fire by Chinese revolts, damaged in three earthquakes and bombarded in World War II, the new shrine was completed in 1954. Today, millions of people go on pilgrimage annually to seek blessings and pray.

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The building itself does not look very grand, and it’s dome-like shape reminded me of a mosque – if not for the stained glass windows and saint figures.

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E lining up to get his forehead blessed with ashes.

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So why put ash on devotees’ foreheads on Ash Wednesday? There’s a very good, detailed description here. I think long story short, they are supposed to represent the repentance of the devotee and their willingness to start over in their devotion to God.

I may be on the fence about religion now, but I decided not to partake in the rituals. To me, rituals hold a power that should not be trifled with if you are not a believer. I seek to understand more by observing, before I make my own choices.

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The church was having mass (which runs hourly) when we arrived. The priest was reading the Bible (?) in Tagalog while everyone stood, listened, and uttered Amen periodically. There was a large gold tapestry flanked by two paintings and the Marian image of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage encased in glass.

The statue, brought over from Mexico in the 16th century, is said to have miraculous powers. There is a peculiar story about how the statue, which is done in a medieval ‘Black Madonna’ style (where Mary is portrayed with dark skin), would vanish from its shrine and reappear atop a tipolo (breadfruit) tree: hence its location in Antipolo of which the name derives from the same tree.

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Just outside the church were rows of souvenir shops selling candles, prayer paraphernalia, incense sticks, snacks, keychains and touristy stuff.

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The place is apparently famous for their cashews, so we bought some cashew boat tarts to take home. Also tried these glutinous rice rolls cooked in bamboo.. which was exactly like the Malaysian lemang – except that Filipinos dip it in sugar instead of curry.

ANTIPOLO CHURCH 

Dela Paz Street, Antipolo, Rizal Province, Philippines