Half a century of crucifixions for both penitent and photographer

April 25, 2011

I can’t help but be amazed by the contrasting observance of the Lenten season, particularly Holy Week, in my country, the Philippines. To many, Holy Week means going back to their home towns for vacation for a relaxing time and to renew ties with families and friends. To others, like the people from Pampanga in the northern Philippines, it is the time for the annual religious ritual that could be viewed as bizarre in the eyes of some observers.

Pampanga has become a popular destination for local and foreign tourists, as well as journalists, during Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as thousands of penitents self-flagellate and dozens enact Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Last Thursday, I followed the shirtless men as they walked the streets while whipping their backs with bamboo sticks. Blood splattered not only on my clothes but also on my camera lens as I got closer to the penitents to take a snap shot of their wounded and bloodied backs. Sometimes I even tasted the blood as droplets landed on my face.

It was 1985 when penitent Ruben Enaje first had himself nailed onto the cross. He said it was a vow he made after miraculously surviving a fall from the third floor of a building he was painting. Seeing him again last Friday for the 26th year of his crucifixion, it was obvious he has aged but the expression of pain on his face – as three-inch stainless steel nails are hammered on his hands and feet – is the same.

Buses of foreign tourists started arriving as early as 9 a.m. although the actual crucifixion wasn’t until 3 p.m. Everyone had to be there early to get a good position to view the “show.” This year, dozens of penitents had themselves nailed on the cross with Ruben Enaje leading them all. He played Jesus Christ in the reenactment where all characters wore costumes, from Jesus himself, to the Virgin Mary and the Roman soldiers riding on horses. After hours of waiting, cameras started snapping and rolling when Ruben, dressed in Christ’s garment, ended the Way of the Cross at the “Golgotha,” or the hill of the crucifixion. He was pushed and shoved by the Roman soldiers as they climb the hill where the three crosses were waiting. A brief dialogue from the Bible was delivered by the characters and then the crucifixion happened, first, of the two thieves, and then Jesus.

The Centurions sprinkled alcohol on the palms and feet of Ruben before hammering the three-inch nails into them. It only took one strike to nail each palm and foot onto the wooden cross. Ruben let out a cry of pain and then the cross was raised for the entire audience to see him nailed to the cross. A few minutes later, he was brought down and carried away by a stretcher to a nearby ambulance for first aid treatment to his wounds. The swiftness in the way the characters played their part shows their years of experience conducting the reenactment.

Once the show was over, the majority of the crowd dispersed but the photographers stayed on for the next batch of crucifixions. Unlike the first where the Golgotha was cordoned off, organizers allowed people to gather around the next batch of penitents to be crucified, allowing us to take better close up shots. In addition, there wasn’t any more acting or dialogue in the crucifixions that followed.

One penitent, still reeking of liquor, said it was his fifth year to be crucified. He made a vow to perform it for his children’s health. Just like last year, he had one extra wish – to win in the small town illegal lottery game known as jueteng.

Just like Ruben I started covering this event in 1985. The ritual hasn’t changed much 26 years later. In fact, its popularity may have even increased, as evidenced by the droves of spectators in cars and buses who arrive at the crucifixion site. The spectators now include foreign dignitaries who get premium VIP seats – that is, a tented area in the vast hot open field to cover them from the scorching heat of the summer sun – arranged by the local tourism office.

As I wrap up my work, I wondered if the penitents perform the annual ritual out of extreme devotion to Christ or out of desperation as they try ways for their prayers to reach heaven.

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