Witnessing a man getting his hands and feet nailed to the cross definitely wasn’t something I expected to see in the Philippines. Yet there I was, in the small town of San Fernando on Good Friday seeing the most incredible religious proceedings of my life.
Wanting to beat the traffic, and the estimated 30,000 people that were expected to converge on the town I caught the 6am bus from Manila’s Cubao terminal. Interestingly, no one I tried to explain where I wanted to go understood, resulting in me being dropped off on the side of the road at a random village. From there it took two jeepney’s, a tricycle and a lot of help from locals to find the location. The dead giveaway that I was in the right town was the amazing number of men walking the streets with masked hoods on, whipping themselves with lengths of bamboo attached to rope. The practice is called penitensiya and is done by individuals to atone for their sins and seek guidance. The men followed a designated path and at certain points along the way such as churches, stopped and knelt to pray or have shards of glass pressed into their backs. The morning sun glistening off the blood from their fresh wounds.
At other locations the men stopped and re-enacted various stages of Jesus’ day leading up to his crucification. The men would fall to the ground and crawl forward for a few meters, with children no older than 10 generously continuing the whipping for them. I would be interested to know how it would effect a young mind, because when I looked down and saw that my pants, shoes and shirt were covered in blood splatter, I was a little disturbed. And also annoyed because they had just been cleaned.
As the morning drew on, fewer and fewer men were walking the streets as preparations began for the real ‘show’. Now, I say show not out of disrespect for what was taking place – I found it all very interesting and if people want to maim themselves for religion, so be it. However, the whole thing seemed to jump between solemn religious proceedings and, well. A show. It was that lightheartedness in the atmosphere that threw me off more than anything about the whole day. But I digress.
Starting from Sta Lucia church at 9.30am a very convincing Jesus began walking the street, bearing the cross with men on horses acting as escorts in toe. From here, Jesus would walk with the cross some 300+ meters to the crucifixion site, stopping along the way to re-enact parts of the 14 ‘stations of the cross’. He wore a moroon robe, crown of thorns and the cross looked pretty damn heavy. Behind him, was Mary and the other women of Jerusalem whom were called to stage when the procession reached stage of ‘Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem’. The crowd seemed to go crazy for that one, the volunteers holding people back were struggling with the advancement of pushy tourists (local and foreign) vying for that perfect shot. I’d seen enough at that point and decided to whisk ahead, past the truck in front playing the accompaniment music to find a good spot at the crucifixion site.
At the site (next to a basketball court), one of three that would be used for the various re-enactments throughout the day was a purpose made concrete hill, complete with three wooden crosses. Filling the stands of the court were families and children all waiting in anticipation while ice-cream, popcorn, balloon and water vendors walked around selling their wares. Closer towards the hill was a small medic station, already catering to a number of men returning from their penitensiya with bloodied backs and symptoms of heat stroke. Closer still, was a media platform that seemed designed just for foreigners. I spotted Ashe and joined her, noticing that half of the backpackers I’d met in the last week had congregated on the town for the ceremony as well.
Before long Jesus, the guards, Mary and the women reached the site, the crowd silencing. A voice spoke in Tagalog, telling the story up until this point as Jesus consoled the women once more, disrobed and lay down on the cross. I could see the nails from where I was standing, long silver nails. With two gut-wrenching hits, and barely a peep from Jesus, they were in. The cross was quickly risen and for 10 minutes he stood in the heat, between two other men (tied to the cross, not nailed) before being brought down and rushed to the medic bay.
After the first crucifixion, things got messy. Three other men were crucified while all respect towards the re-enactment and ceremony were lost. The ‘media’ (yes, I was amongst them as well) were let loose and were aggressively pushing and crowding over the new victims (for lack of a better word), some with their lenses no more than 6 inches from the participants’ hands. The volunteer staff could do nothing to hold them back. After snapping out of the frenzy that everyone seemed caught up in I left the hill and let everyone else get on with it, only to find that I was even more frustrated with what went on at the medic station. There was a rope barrier around the already tiny medic station, yet some tourists felt that they were above it and ducked through, getting in the way of nurses trying to stop a man’s wound from bleeding while his whole body spasmed in shock. I couldn’t be a photojournalist.
After that, I left. Or planned to anyway. I was on my way to find a bus and got in a conversation with a local volunteer who invited me into his family’s home for lunch. A huge feat was prepared for the extended family that had come in from all over the Philippines. No red meat, of course. For two or so hours we ate, talked, and ate some more of the delicious food. Before I left they handed me a bag of mangoes, insisting that I take them and also promise that I text them to let them know I got back to Manila safely.
Overall, I still don’t know how I really feel about the events in San Fernando that day. I certainly understand why the catholic church doesn’t sanction it, but I can still respect the tradition that’s been going on for over 50 years. I worry for the children, walking around covered in blood, partly from their own doing, and that drawing the blood was their job. Mostly, whilst it was a fantastic experience to see and be apart of, I think the town should be left to do their ceremony without the involvement of pushy tourists. After-all, it’s a ceremony for God and their devotion to him. Not a show for the public. Right?
I know this post was long, and if you made it this far I presume it held some interest to you. That being the case, I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on this, so please – use the comments below!