Take up the cross

I REMEMBER it quite clearly—a sight that was very painful to witness but definitely not as painful as for those going through with it: A group of about three or four men, wearing a crown of thorns, walking down the street while repeatedly hitting their bare backs with a whip.

At quick glance, it looked as though they had their back painted red. But if you look longer, the skin had been ripped mercilessly and the edges of the wounds were starting to blacken. They have been at this for quite a while. It was bloody.

I was about 10 when I first witnessed a crucifixion reenactment, a practice among only the most devout Catholics in Northern Luzon. We had been talking about our favorite fruits - I said rambutan - when we drove near a crowd in our Tamaraw FX, our car in Manila at that time. I didn't understand what was going on at first but instead of being repelled by the sight of a small ground of men self-inflicting pain, I was intrigued by the event.

"They're repenting," my mother explained. The devotees believed that if they went through the same experience Jesus Christ had, their sins would be forgiven or they fulfill a religious vow that they had taken. The whole process includes the carrying of the wooden cross, the long walk down the street, self-flagellation, and the crucifixion.

The practice of crucifixion is held every Good Friday of the Holy Week. It is a devotional, religious practice most common among the Kapampangans. Every year, at least three devotees or penitents undergo the crucifixion - some of which have committed to make it a yearly Good Friday ritual. The walk ends at the top of a small hill where three crosses stand.

For last year's crucifixion event in a barrio in Pampanga, nine men were crucified - eight Filipinos and one foreigner. It was a full reenactment complete with Roman soldiers taking part in the process. Two-inch nails were driven into the hands and feet of the penitents and, after they were taken down, they immediately received medical attention to ensure that none of them had sustained severe injuries.

Among the group of penitents last year, 54-year-old Ruben Enaje, a former construction worker from San Fernando, Pampanga, claims to have undergone the ritual for 27 times after having survived a three-storey fall from a billboard.

Since then, he had vowed to be crucified as a symbol of gratitude for being given another life. 2013 was supposed to have been the last year for him to do the crucifixion, having initially planned to repeat for only 27 times or three cycles of nine. However, he went for a 28th last year and was among the group of penintents last Friday, making it his 29th time to be crucified on the cross.

He was requested to join once again since there was no other willing devotee to fill up the spot this year. Enaje feels that his yearly crucifixion is somewhat his responsibility to his community and has led him to desire to walk the path of God. It also reflects on his personal life, as he claims, that if he were to follow God, he cannot live a life of sin.

More than just personal intentions, every year as Enaje is nailed to the cross for at least 10 minutes, he includes in his prayers his family, community, and the whole country. For this year, he includes their village chief who is currently undergoing dialysis, for the government to help the poorest of the poor, as well as for the souls for the fallen 44 SAF commandos.

As blessed as he claims to be after each reenactment, he hopes that they soon find a replacement for his position as his body has become weak with age. He also hopes that the thousands of spectators do not take the entire event as somewhat of a circus act for entertainment, but that they reflect for a moment and pray for their own personal intentions as well.

Though church authorities have voiced their concerns and discouragement over this practice, seeing it as fanatical, they admit that each person's faith is their own and if the devotees personally feel that they become closer to God, the authorities are in no position to prevent them from practicing. It should be done as a demonstration of their commitment to their faith, and not merely for the few minutes of fame they receive.

Enaje along with a few more devotees were nailed on the cross as an act of their great devotion. The great sacrifice they will make and the prayers that will get them through the pain shows the most literal taking up of Jesus Christ's cross. Though not all could follow this path, to each their own way of expressing their faith.

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