People around the world show their devotion to their faith in a number of different ways. Debatably, none take it quite as seriously as a handful of Filipinos do in a small town a few hours north of Manila as they reenact Jesus Christ’s last few days, right up to – and including – the crucifixion of Jesus!
Holy week is the most important week of the year for most devout Catholics. It’s the week leading up to Good Friday, when Christ was nailed to a cross. Processions and commemorations happen all over the world, throughout Europe, Latin America – and the Philippines is certainly no exception, as filipino catholicism is amongst the strongest of faiths.
For the week leading up to Good Friday, you will see shrines set up in the streets, booths where people can go and read passages from the bible, and on occasion, you’ll even see a group of rusty brown robe clad men carrying a cross down the street under the blaze of the scorching equatorial sun. Many rush from their homes to witness this tradition, as the men carry the cross from one church to another, often seeking refuge from the heat and a bit of nourishment from inside the churches stone walls. They will often make a pilgrimage that can last the entire week, ending up 100’s of Kilometres from their starting point.
As the week progresses, the self mortifications increase in occurrence, and in severity. If you get squeamish easily, you may want to skip the rest of this article!
Self-flagellation, an old roman practice consisting whipping one’s self, while wearing crowns of thorns, and often blind-folded, becomes increasingly visible in the streets. This is most prominent in the province around the city of San Fernando, and is a practice you may only see in a few parts of the world still, including Peru and Mexico. Often they will whip their backs for hours as they parade through the streets to the point of raw , bloody flesh being exposed across their backs.
Now I don’t know if it was just me that noticed this, but the pattern that’s formed from the wooden sticks splaying out as they whip themselves almost looks like an angel’s wings on their backs. Shockingly so. I sometimes wonder if this image was what lead to the first concept of angels? A selfless mortification act, which gave the person wings and brought them closer to God?
Good Friday – The day of the Crucifixion
On the final day, you will see events happening around the country, but the main event happens in the small city of San Fernando, Pampanga. Without this event’s occurrence, there’s a good chance many would never even know this city existed. It is in this city where a large group of men, and the occasional devout women, converge on the city, carrying their crosses along with hundreds of men continuing the self-flagellation. They make their way through the city centre, and to the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Fernando City. Men dressed as Roman soldiers come out and start pushing the men carrying crosses. The people in the crowds start getting energized and partaking, yelling and screaming at them, while others break down in tears. The Roman soldiers ruthlessly hit and kick the cross bearing devotees, who often fall to the ground in pain and exhaustion.
From here, the procession carries on to a small field a few Kilometres away. Nearly 10,000 filipinos gather to watch, as those who are self mortifying walk towards three large crosses sitting atop a small man made hill. It is hot and emotional levels are high with everyone around. You can go and watch them arrive, by the dozens, for several hours, leading up to the act everyone is waiting for.
What started several decades ago in 1990 by a man named Ruben Enaje, a simple labourer, has escalated into being one of the most important religious events in this region. Ruben’s wife narrowly survived a complicated birth of their child, and to show gratefulness to God, he decided to make a near ultimate self sacrifice, by nailing himself to a cross. Sure enough, another event happened later in the year which made him thankful again, and so come the following Easter, he did it again. More and more people appreciated his undying devotion, and started joining in what had become an annual tradition of servitude to God.
Around 2pm, after most of the devotees have successfully finished their pilgrimage to the crosses, a small crowd gathers in costume near the base of the crosses. Men dressed as horse bound Roman soldiers circle around. There are shepherds, and other important figures who all gather around the crosses. The Ruben gets lead out. You can feel the electrical emotions in the air. This is an incredibly symbolic action which strengthens and unifies their faith. The incredibly hot heat, mixed with the smells of dust and blood that linger around the crowd only add to the emotions. I’ve never experienced something with such intensity before!
Ruben Enaje’s Crucifixion
Prior to the event, Ruben Enaje actually spends days in preparation for his crucifixion, even though he’s done it several dozen times now. He spends time alone and engages in deep meditation before the day on which he will share in Christ’s suffering. I can’t imagine what’s going on in his head to prepare him for nails being hammered into his hands and feet!
As he approaches the cross, a silence comes over the crowd. There are speakers set up, and all the main actors will be able to recite some of their sacred scriptures to try to recreate the experience as accurately as possible… in Tagalog.
The cross is lowered and Ruben takes his place. The Roman soldiers assist in holding his hands in place, as the nails and his hands are sanitized with rubbing alcohol. Ropes are also tied around his wrists to the cross to help bare any weight. The anticipation is heart wrenching!
The event happens almost like clockwork – something which is rare for the Philippines easy going lifestyle. At 3pm, the estimated time at which Christ himself was nailed to the cross, the hammer gets raised in the air. Some in the audience cover their eyes, while others look away. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, like watching a train wreck in which you don’t want to see the outcome, but can’t take your eyes off. I couldn’t believe what I was actually witnessing. The hammer drops down and you hear a scream that pierces your own skin right down to the bone. The first hand is done, and the process must now be repeated for his other hand and both feet. I don’t know why, but the feet was the worst for me. I felt myself getting a gag reflex as the hammer dropped.
Once secured to the cross, it’s raised in the air, and he’s joined by two others (one on either side, tied but not nailed). The reciting begins, as Ruben speaks words of wisdom and faith that Christ would have spoken to his audience. Mary, some shepherds and some disciples all join in, crying out to the Ruben-Christ figure, under the sun’s oppressive heat.
The entire ritual lasts about 30 mins, before Ruben is brought down from the cross. A Roman soldier pulls the nails out (by hand!!), and Ruben gets carried over to a stretcher where he is quickly carried to a medical tent. They ensure that no serious damage has been made, and that his wounds are properly sanitized and tended to.
Leaving the event
At this point, most people want to just get out of the sun and get rehydrated, so the crowds start pushing towards the gate. However, the event isn’t over for everyone. Up to and sometimes exceeding 20 more devotees follow suit and get nailed to the cross now every year. For them, it is entirely driven by the same faith that started Ruben Enaje on his original journey. It is not for the fame or glamour of doing it for an audience (which is not why Ruben does it, I should add), but merely for showing gratitude towards their God.
This is definitely one of the highest emotional events you can witness in the Philippines (or in most parts of the world for that matter). Some have described the act of self-flagellation and crucifixion as crazy. What I saw was something much deeper. An unfaltering relation with God that can not be dissuaded.
Ocampo says that after his crucifixion, “Life goes on.”
Don’t forget to check out the photos under the “See” tab of this post
From Ninoy Aquino International Airport, head to the Araneta-Cubao bus terminal in Quezon City. Take any bus heading to San Fernando-Dau junction (PHP 100 per person (US$2.30).
San Fernando City, Pampanga is 75 kilometers north of the capital Manila through the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX). At the San Fernando junction, take a jeepney to the poblacion (PHP 8 (US$0.20), then take a pedicab or foot-pedaled tricycle to San Pedro Cutud.
Drivers will haggle for a fare, but one should not pay more than PHP20 (US$0.47) per person.
Accommodation is very tricky for this festival. Seeing as how the city itself is not overly touristy otherwise, there is not much selection for hotels. If you want to stay in San Fernando, you will need to book accommodation well in advance!
Another option is staying in a nearby city, such as Quezon City, and then taking a bus or an expensive taxi up early in the morning of the event.
There are a few restaurants in the city, but during Holy Week, you’ll find that most public establishments are closed through the week. Only large chains, and street food will likely be open, with the odd exception that is capitalizing on the event. There are snack stands available at the event as well.
Though this is a holy event, it is also in a fairly poor part of the Philippines. Unfortunately, like in any big crowd, theft is at a higher risk than normal. I had my wallet pick-pocketed while walking away from the event in the crowds, after having checked it only moments before! Take only what is essential, and put a few notes of money in different pockets. It is an unfortunate reality, but if using common sense and caution, can be avoided and you can still have an enjoyable experience. Don’t bring all your credit cards/bank cards with you when going out. I’d suggest leaving them in a safe at your hotel, or with reception.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Entrance to the main public area of the event is free, though you will be left in the scorching sun with pushing crowds, and a pretty bad view of the crosses.
There is a VIP tent, which is shaded and with chairs. Tickets can be purchased well in advance, though are upwards of nearly $100, and difficult to obtain. After spending half the day in the sun, and the other half under the tented VIP section, I personally couldn’t imagine having spent the whole day in that dusty field without the shelter of that tent.
Your only other costs will be spent on transportation, and most importantly, hydration. There is lots of water available at the event, along with typical street food and snack booths.
This is one of the most intense and important traditions you might witness in the Philippines. It is incredible to see people going to these lengths to show their devotion to their God. It is important to note that because of how important it is, you must be extra mindful to respect that tensions may be higher, emotions are escalated, and to only show respect to those there, as they are allowing you to witness something very personal.
This time of year is one of the hottest, and so you MUST stay hydrated, as you will be in the heat for most of the day with only a few possibilities of shade (and no air con). You don’t want to end up in one of the medical tents intended for those showing their own devotions, just for being dehydrated.
Pickpocketing is a risk, as it is anywhere, but especially in the tight crowds pushing around, so be very aware of your belongings, and don’t bring a stuffed wallet out – only enough money needed for the day to enjoy yourself. Avoid using back pockets if at all possible and keep your hands on your things of value as you move around.
Above all, enjoy yourself and embrace the incredible acts of devotions for what they are! You might not understand it, but it doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it. Happy Travels!!
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From a young age, Ian was always a wanderer. He's since travelled to all 7 continents, and has spent the majority of his life pursuing this passion. Follow him in his off-the-beaten-path adventures and discoveries!