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Easter in the Philippines: a Passion Play

February 14, 2011

The Philippines is a deeply religious nation, and as Asia’s only officially Catholic country, the devout followers take the celebration of Easter very seriously. Father Pedro de Valderama, the priest accompanying Magellan (the famed Portuguese circumnavigator) was the first person to bring Christianity to these far flung islands, and his first religious act was Easter Mass in 1521. The faith spread quickly from then on, as did the reverence for holy icons and statues, particularly Santo Niño de Cebu, an image of the infant Jesus given to the royal house of Cebu as a goodwill gesture by Magellan.

Fast forward 500 years, and Philippine Catholicism is still going strong, partly because of its incorporation of local traditions and the conversion of local deities into saints. The Passion plays of Easter are the most public and universal displays of Filipino faith, but be warned, in their devotion the inhabitants of the Pampanga region stick very closely to the punishments meted out on Jesus on the road to Golgotha.

Thankfully I’m not squeamish, as I was fascinated by this re-enactment and wanted to compare it to similar South and Central American Easter parades. Although other Easter or Senakulo events are held all over the country I was told San Fernando’s celebrations were the most exciting, and bloody.

Easter, celebrates the persecution, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus over three days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday (the date of which being defined as the first full moon after the Spring equinox, the traditional date of the Jewish feast of Passover), and if you want to get a feeling of how the Biblical Jesus felt then this is where you’ll find all the agony and ecstasy of the passion.

It all starts in the blistering mid-day heat, from the church in the small village of nearby San Pedro Cutud, where a procession of young men have their backs lacerated with broken glass before they walk, beating themselves with bamboo whips until their backs are truly bloody. Then the kristos, carrying heavy wooden crucifixes and wearing crowns of thorns, are herded down the roads by Filipinos dressed as Roman soldiers. Flagellation is an old catholic practice designed to purge oneself of sin, and the culmination of the day could be seen as a natural extension of this practice (it was so common and deaths through blood loss so widespread the Filipino authorities banned self-whipping in the 1700s).

After acting out the early Stations of the Cross (the penitents often fell to the ground without the need for acting skills; the combination of heat and blood loss made their suffering very real) we reached the small hill of Purok Kuwatro, the Philippines’ Calvary, where a huge gathering of tourists, TV crews and locals had gathered to witness the final act. This year 8 men had elected to shed their sins, or give thanks for mercies granted, in this extreme fashion and they were first bound to their crosses, firmly at the hands, upper arms and legs to prevent excessive pain or bleeding, before the most grisly part of the re-enactment was carried out.

Stainless steel nails, glinting mercilessly in the sun, were held aloft over the prone bodies of the faithful and chanting filled the air, both from the supplicants and locals. This chanting was a special prayer that was meant to induce a trance and reduce the pain.

Then three hammers rose, a hush descended and three hammers fell. A dull thudding noise was all that signified the piercing of their flesh.

Cheers rang out, and the hammers rose again. My stomach churned, but I pushed forward, wanting to confront my fear and look into the faces of the others. The looks on the men were blank, perhaps from the trance or to avoid showing pain. I know I would have been screaming by then, prayers or no. They were then hoisted into an upright position and the true crucifixion began.

I think the heat must have been getting to me, as I started to giggle and hum under my breath, “always look on the bright side of life”.

After I had stood around for some time I saw a local man taking notes and assumed he was a journalist.

“How long will they be up there?” I asked.

The reply came with a smile, “Until they feel cleansed, or the pain is too much. It can be anything from a few minutes to hours, it’s not a competition.”

My new friend Raoul was overheating as much as I was and we retired to the shade nearby, where a makeshift bar was erected. “So how long has this been going on?”

“Since the 60’s; the first guy to do it was a faith healer called Arsenio Añoza and he did it every year, for 15 years. I think he was a little crazy, but his dedication has been an inspiration to others. Plus it brings in good tourist money.” Raoul smiles as he swigs his beer.

“So, who comes to do this and why?”

“Poor people, people with sick mothers, crazies, guys who have something to answer for. Also we’ve had a big increase in the numbers of flagelantes since the Pinatubo eruption; they come for their village, in the hope that the flooding will stop. It’s a pretty punishing experience as you can see and they spend weeks preparing, praying, fasting. I think a few people do it for the fame, to prove they are real men, although we’ve had women kristos before. In fact we had a Belgian woman a few years ago and then a Japanese guy claiming his brother was terminally ill; turns out he was a porn star. Now only Filipinos can participate, which is sad in a way, because people should be allowed to freely express their religious feelings.”

While the rest of the country spends the days of Easter in contemplation of Jesus’ suffering, even the TV channels shut down, the men of Pampanga feel the real thing, and you can’t help getting caught up in the intense spirituality of the day. Even a cynical agnostic like me found myself sympathising with Jesus and it was almost like being in the crowd at that ancient Golgotha, though thankfully, in 40 years, none of the Kristos has actually died.

On departing the scene, I contemplated the power of mind over matter, of religion and of human strength. I found the whole spectacle moving in a way and I now feel that my witnessing the suffering of others has made me appreciate the little things in life more. Also Raoul was right, a little miracle has been worked, for the tourists, and their money, are now streaming to this once poverty stricken region, helping these intensely religious people lead a more comfortable life, at least until next Easter.


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Monday, February 14, 2011 About Easter in Clark Philippines




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