A Cross to Bear


Asian Geographic - - Southeast Asia -

ph i l i ppines


sight of peo­ple pass­ing out is com­mon dur­ing the Holy Week cel­e­bra­tions in San Pe­dro Cu­tud, a small town 75 kilo­me­tres north­west of the Philip­pine cap­i­tal, Manila. But the spec­ta­cle of wilt­ing fig­ures is not due to the steam­ing heat – it is the re­sult of a bru­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the cru­ci­fix­ion of Je­sus Christ mark­ing Lent, the six-week reli­gious ob­ser­vance that starts on Ash Wednesday and con­cludes on Easter Sun­day. Ac­cord­ing to the reli­gious scrip­tures, Je­sus Christ un­der­went ag­o­nis­ing suf­fer­ing be­fore sac­ri­fic­ing him­self for the sal­va­tion of mankind. Reli­gious devo­tees re-en­act his fi­nal days in acts of penance.

Un­like many other parts of the world where the pas­sion of Christ is re­mem­bered in a the­atri­cal fash­ion (with fake blood and ac­tors car­ry­ing a light cross on their backs for a short pe­riod of time), Catholic be­liev­ers in San Pe­dro Cu­tud choose to repli­cate the event in all its gory glory. Devo­tees par­take in the three acts of penance: They carry the wooden cross for 30 kilo­me­tres on Holy Wednesday while rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ro­man sol­diers lash their backs with bam­boo sticks; they whip them­selves through­out Thursday and Good Fri­day (some go as far as to maim their flesh with ra­zor blades); and in the third and fi­nal act, they are nailed to a cross as Christ was.

The Catholic church doesn’t of­fi­cially sanc­tion these rit­u­als, but they have – re­gard­less of their sever­ity – be­come a tourist at­trac­tion, par­tic­u­larly for fel­low be­liev­ers. “I can’t be­lieve how strong the faith of these men is. It’s hard to watch be­cause it’s very vi­o­lent. There is blood ev­ery­where. But it’s a true re­minder of what Christ went through,” says Ed­uardo Mal­don­ado, a fer­vent Chris­tian who trav­elled to wit­ness the “bloody Easter” from Spain. He adds: “I feel very moved to see how Filipinos can keep tra­di­tions even bet­ter than those who brought them here. We are los­ing faith in Europe, but it’s com­fort­ing to see how it re­mains strong here.”

Span­ish colo­nial­ists brought Chris­tian­ity to the Philip­pines when they ar­rived in the 16th cen­tury, and

“I feel very moved to see how Filipinos can keep tra­di­tions even bet­ter than those who brought them here. We are los­ing faith in Europe, but it’s com­fort­ing to see how it re­mains strong here”

they re­mained un­til the 19th cen­tury, spread­ing their Chris­tian mes­sage. Their lan­guage didn’t re­ally stick (al­though Ta­ga­log re­tains many Span­ish words), but their re­li­gion took root. To­day, the Philip­pines proudly de­clares it­self as the only Chris­tian na­tion in Asia with more than 86 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion listed as Ro­man Catholic.

De­spite this ex­ten­sive in­fil­tra­tion of Catholi­cism in the Philip­pines, San Pe­dro Cu­tud only started recre­at­ing the last days of Christ a cen­tury ago; it wasn’t un­til 1961 that 13-cen­time­tre nails were driven into the hands and feet of agree­ing parish­ioners in the pro­ces­sion. By 1992, the show took a turn for the gris­lier with the in­tro­duc­tion of whips, which have since re­mained in the rit­ual – even though some bish­ops and politi­cians have at­tempted to ban such us­ages in an ef­fort to tone it down.

More­over, the lo­cals ad­mit that their bloody Easter has be­come a good source of in­come, which ex­plains why other towns in the north of Lu­zon’s is­land have started to drama­tise the Holy Week in the same fash­ion. Some now al­low fe­male pen­i­tents to par­tic­i­pate in what many de­nounce as an ex­ploita­tion of women – to make the re­cre­ation more at­trac­tive to out­siders.

Un­til a decade ago, for­eign­ers were also wel­come to join in the vol­un­tary suf­fer­ing with the lo­cals, but the au­thor­i­ties in­ter­vened. “A Bri­tish [vis­i­tor] even suf­fered a panic at­tack when he was about to get nailed. Their faith is not as un­break­able as ours,” shares a pen­i­tent named Ben­ingno, whose wife heals the wounds of par­tic­i­pants – caused by lashes.

Rubén Enaje de­clares that he would never have a change of heart. He has been nailed to the cross al­most 30 times, which is ev­ery year for the sec­ond half of his life. “I wanted to thank God for sav­ing my life when I fell from scaf­fold­ing in 1984,” he says. “I promised Him I’d take part in the Holy Week cel­e­bra­tions for 20 years, but I keep do­ing it be­cause the two times I’ve tried to stop, my wife fell ill. One time she was even close to death, so I swore to keep the tra­di­tion.”

Avoid travel agen­cies and ar­range the trip to San Pe­dro Cu­tud your­self. Not only will you save a good deal of money, but you will also be able to in­ter­act more with the lo­cals – and you will have more free­dom. Ar­rive early for the pro­ces­sions, be­cause it’s ex­tremely crowded.

Catholic devo­tee Rubén Enaje in the re-en­act­ment of the cru­ci­fix­ion, which he has par­tic­i­pated in for 25 years

Top left Hun­dreds of parish­ioners and devo­tees from Santo Niño de Tondo await a bless­ing with holy wa­ter be­low 56-year-old Rolando Ocampo tries on a crown of thorns that he will wear on Good Fri­day when he re-en­acts the cru­ci­fix­ion of Christ above Rubén E

Left Men from the vil­lage of San Pe­dro Cu­tud walk bare­foot while they whip their backs

Top A young pen­i­tent – whose head is crowned with a thorny plant – is flag­el­lated. He will walk bare­foot to his vil­lage af­ter reach­ing the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Cathe­dral of San Fer­nando City above Par­tic­i­pants of­ten pray dur­ing their or­deal, which they say helps

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