For the Love of Christ
The Crucifixion in the Philippines
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
Nowhere else in the world are the death and resurrection of Christ relived with such passion as in the Philippines.
There, Asia’s largest Catholic community mixes Christian fervour with pagan pageantry, in a ceremony based on Saint Augustine’s famous maxim: live as the Son of God lived. For the love of Christ, some Filipino Christians allow themselves to be crucified; nailed to the cross by their hands and feet, while others are whipped senseless with razor-studded leather straps. A Holy Week like no other…
In a Filipino province, the local press recently reported that a man from Belgium had insisted on being crucified along with 11 other men emulating the Calvary of Jesus Christ.
But at the last minute, the tourist backed down: “I lack the physical and psychological preparation,” he said. A Filipino woman put it differently: “He simply doesn’t have the faith….”
Another Way of Expressing One’s Faith
For the average Westerner today, the way these Filipinos express their faith is as disturbing as it is fascinating. “It’s all just folklore,” Westerners think with disdain.
“The humiliation of it, the whipping and the suffering are merely shown.” But the people of the Philippines have not forgotten that the emulation of the life of Jesus Christ is the very foundation of Christianity.
Furthermore, as the philosophy of Schopenhauer testifies, suffering was once a principal theme in the Western approach to spirituality. Today, however, modern preoccupations have taken the place of spirituality as a whole, rendering the concept of suffering as a path to spirituality entirely redundant.And so it is that there is misunderstanding and prejudice.
Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the celebrated French cardinal, referred to the church as “the city of the poor.” It is, perhaps, precisely this link between Jesus Christ and the poor that explains the vitality and naïveté of Filipino Christianity, as well as the relative indifference of Western Christians.
This fundamental difference is most apparent during the ceremonies of Holy Week when the people of the Philippines crucify and whip willing devotees.
Where in the Philippines, all participate in the ritual, in Europe Holy Week participation is minimal, characterised at most by a little fasting, or abstinence from meat on Fridays.
For the past 25 years, however, the Catholic Church has refused to recognise these intensely emotional ritual crucifixions in the Philippines as the ultimate expression of devotion to Jesus the Saviour.
In the Footsteps of Christ
On Good Friday, the Son of God died on the cross.
In the streets of Paompong, a little Filipino village one hour from Manila, the atmosphere is charged with a sort of fervour that the people here consider as supernatural. In the last few days before this most sacred of days for Christians around the world, the little village comes alive in preparation for the festivities.
There are tables filled with a colourful assortment of refreshments, cases of lukewarm beer and soda.
A carnival atmosphere can be felt everywhere. Men and women alike are dressed for the occasion, in the style of the era when Jesus was crucified.
Roman helmets, tunics, leather sandals, and the veiled faces of “Jewish” women are abundant. Somewhat perplexed, the few tourists present observe preparations for the festivities. Some participate for the desire to experience the ecstasy of their religious devotion, others are there for the first time to discover, little by little, the ultimate purpose of the great gathering: multiple crucifixions of men and women alike in a reconstruction of the death of their beloved Jesus.
Before long, hundreds of people are assembled in the streets and squares. The stifling heat and enormous crowds inevitably cause a few people to pass out. The police broadcast messages through loudspeakers placed here and there, politely warning the crowd of the risk of pickpockets and other dangers.
A 17-year-old boy, Buboy Dioniso – barely past the throes of pubescence, addresses the crowd according to the best Evangelist tradition, delivering a sermon in the form of a parable. The crowd listens intently, acknowledging its role in the ritual.
People are either totally captivated by his words or actively hostile. The light scars from last year’s crucifixion can still be perceived on his body. The long aluminium spikes nailed through his hands and feet have left their definitive, yet discreet, marks.
This year Buboy is doing it again, hoping to cleanse his soul of his past sins and be blessed with the healing powers to cure his old mother of a heart problem that forms a serious threat to her health.
With his head of long hair adorned by a crown of thorns and dressed in a white robe, Buboy carries his cross barefoot along his “path of pain”. It is noon. The sun is scorching. A man dressed as Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea, awaits Jesus-Buboy as he limps forward painfully.
The Governor shall formally condemn his prisoner, as his Bible-figure equivalent did some two thousand years before. The horsemen sweat under their Roman helmets, made of cardboard and papier mâché. Dozens of penitents whip the accused as he carries his cross, slicing their long straps and whips into his lacerated skin.
The whips are equipped with sharp metal edges, razor blades or even crushed glass to tear away at Buboy’s bleeding backside even more violently.
Three men lift Buboy up onto the gallows, his feet resting flat on a ledge. Preachers pass through the crowd, handing out pamphlets as the extreme unction is conducted. Centurions wearing evil-looking masks ceremoniously and solemnly bring forth the nails that will be used to nail Buboy to the cross. His eyes shut tight, beads of sweat running down his face, Buboy suppresses a long cry of pain.
The experienced “nailer” places the spikes carefully into Buboy’s flesh, in such a way as to avoid the bones and tendons. Then the spikes are pounded through his hands, then his feet, with a hammer. The pain is intense but the damage will not be debilitating. The cross is then lifted up onto the Filipino “Golgotha” as the crowd looks on, gripped with emotion. The crowd is silent in prayer as is Buboy, who despite the pain doesn’t utter the slightest sound. Next to Buboy on the cross, there are men whipping themselves until they collapse from the pain, lying in their own blood with their arms stretched wide, in the form of the cross. Some manage to maintain enough strength to hold out the object of their suffering and their deliverance to an anonymous bystander, begging them to take over and continue the torture.
Twenty minutes later, a few members of the crowd carefully take Buboy down from the cross after removing the nails and he collapses, seemingly lifeless. A few women are crying, their faces twisted in pain. One is Mary, the other Mary-Magdalena. The “apostles” are there as well, while the Roman guards begin to take on a look of terror, a centurion cries “we are damned, for we have killed the Son of God!”
In every province of the Philippines, men and women alike participate in these passionate rituals to relive the death of Jesus Christ. Most say that they feel no pain while on the cross. “Ever since I’ve been making this sacrifice for God,” says Buboy, “I have been given healing powers.” He hopes, like Lucy – crucified 16 years in a row – to one day hear the voice of God ordering him to stop, and in the same divine revelation granting him the power to heal. Other people who volunteer to be crucified say they do so not to atone for their sins, nor be cured of a disease or to heal someone in their family, but simply as a way of facing their lives of misery and hardship, which they admit they can no longer tolerate…
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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