So, What’s It Like To Be Crucified?
By Kit GilletOctober 26, 2012
In the Philippines, religious devotion is taken to extremes.
As he stands in the shade of the midday heat Ruben Enaje lights a cigarette, then asks my photographer not to take his photo: “Jesus doesn’t smoke,” he explains.
Enaje is visibly nervous, and with good reason. Tomorrow he will be strapped to a large wooden cross while thousands of people watch as 10-centimetre nails are driven through his palms and feet.
This isn’t the first time Enaje has been crucified, in fact it will be the twenty-sixth time, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach or the build-up any less nerve-wracking for the longhaired, 51-year-old Filipino.
“The most painful is the hand — I can’t watch it go in. The first time I watched my hands, but never again,” he tells me, standing in a dusty courtyard in the small town of San Pedro Cutud, an hour north of the Filipino capital of Manila.
“It is an extreme kind of pain, so when I am up on the cross I just try to concentrate on reciting the Lord’s Prayer.”
With long flowing hair and a care-worn face Enaje looks every bit the reincarnation of Jesus, who he’ll be playing the following day as the town celebrates Good Friday by crucifying around a dozen volunteers on a man-made hill on the outskirts of town.
It is a tradition that dates back to 1955, and Enaje is the sixth person to play the role of Jesus (the others being crucified are treated as penitents rather than the embodiment of Christ), which means he will re-enact the twelve Stations of the Cross in painful detail before even reaching the purpose-built mound for his all-too-realistic ‘execution’.
Throughout the morning, and in the lead up to the crucifixions, hundreds of hooded Filipino men will walk slowly down the central avenue of the town beating their bloodied backs with home-made whips in shows of personal religious penitence, each one asking for forgiveness for the sins of the past year and praying for good luck and health for the year ahead.
The Philippines is a devotedly Catholic country. More than 90 per cent of the almost 100-million strong population is Christian, and most aspects of daily life are peppered with signs and symbols of their faith. Churches are packed to the rafters for every service, and issues such as contraception are fiercely debated on the streets, in parliament and in the newspapers.
In such an environment, Christian holidays take on a particularly significant meaning, and none more so than Easter, when the death of Jesus is graphically re-enacted by thousands of children throughout the country and where, in a few towns across the country, the re-enactments are taken to the limits of human endurance.
For almost 60 years the people of San Pedro Cutud, an insignificant speck of a town a few kilometres outside the industrial city of San Fernando, have marked Good Friday by literally crucifying devout volunteers and hoisting them up onto crosses, before carefully bringing them down up to half an hour later to get medical treatment — town officials assure The Global Mail that no one has died since the practise first began in the 1950s.
It is not a practice that everyone agrees with — the Catholic Church has let it be known that it doesn’t approve of this form of devotion — but this hasn’t stopped the practice, nor the crowds that arrive each year to watch the spectacle.
Busloads of Filipinos from nearby cities arrive each year on the morning of Good Friday to witness the events, along with local television crews and some representatives of the international media. For the moment, however, the day before the crowds arrive, the town is quiet, with little hint of what will come tomorrow.
It is a poor town. On the main street a few locals are putting up makeshift snack counters but for the most part children run up and down the dusty street like they would any other day, while adults sit around trying to escape the heat of the morning. At the far end of town a small work crew are busy assembling barricades to encircle the path up to and around the site of Calvary, in this instance a mound just big enough for three crosses in a non-descript field surrounded by tin shacks and empty farmland.
Under a small, leaf canopy opposite the town hall three young men are busy binding together the 25 wooden rods that they will use to whip themselves tomorrow.
Two of them have prominent tattoos of Jesus, and while they are barely 20 years old all three have been self-flagellating as penitence on Good Friday for several years, and will keep doing so until they are over 40. “Each wooden rod represents a year we have promise God we will do it,” one of them explains to me.
Like the crucifixions, this bloody practice began in the area long ago.
“It is an old tradition,” says Frederick Bangal, a local villager who has offered to show me around the town. “Fathers did it, grandfathers did it — many of us are fourth generation.”
In the old days the tradition was to do it quietly in rice fields, letting the blood flow into the grass rather than on the concrete streets. This was before there were any churches in the town, and before the crowds and media picked up on the extreme shows of faith in the community.
Now there are several churches, most plain, a few with ornate touches, in the small community of a few thousand people.
In the ramshackle courtyard of Ruben Enaje’s home, a few friends and family are gathered around trying to help distract him from the following day’s events. Smoke is rising from the outside stove where a chicken is being stewed; a picture of Jesus is propped up against one of the bare-bricked walls.
The mood is sombre. The men chain smoke, and Ruben’s wife and daughters busy themselves with cooking. Everyone seems reluctant to speak, despite the fact that they have all been part of this waiting game many times before.
Enaje has been crucified every year since 1985. The first year he did it his wife only found out after he returned home with bandaged hands.
“I made a promise to God to do it nine times. That was my original vow,” he explains, rubbing the palms of his hands as if remembering the pain.
In 1985, while painting a building, Enaje fell from a third-storey platform. As he was falling he prayed to God and after walking away with no fractured bones, or, he says, even bruises, he made his first vow.
After nine years, one of his children got sick so he made another vow with God that he would continue for another nine years if his child got better (she did).
“After that my wife got sick, so I made another nine-year promise,” he says, with a smile.
He has promised his wife and family that there will be no more after this — that next year, his 27th, will be his last, no matter what.
Each year the wounds take months to fully heal, and the palms of his hands bear permanent marks that only hint at the trauma he puts them through.
“Even after a year I still feel the pain. If I lift something heavy it feels like something is being torn up inside my hand,” he says. He works most of the year as a carpenter and sign painter.
I suggest to Enaje that it must be an odd fraternity of people that volunteers to be crucified — that they must feel a close connection with each other, as well as with Jesus.
He tells me that many of the volunteers come from San Pedro, so he knows them as friends and neighbours, but others just turn up on the day and leave soon after with little fanfare.
Nearby, in the small town hall, the village chief, Felix Soriano, and his staff are milling around and chatting, preparing for the influx of observers the following day and still waiting for any last-minute arrivals for the ordeal of the cross.
“People come from all over to be part of it,” says Soriano, sitting behind his plain wooden desk smoking a cigarette.
A portly man with an easy smile, Soriano is waiting with a waiver for those who are signing up to take part in tomorrow’s crucifixion. “They have to come here to sign a waiver so that if there is an accident we aren’t liable,” he explains, with a laugh.
“So far seven have signed up, but we are expecting at least three more, including one woman.”
I ask Soriano whether he has ever thought about doing it himself, but he laughs the suggestion off: “I wasn’t born here so it’s not my tradition.”
A short while later a young, thin man with a small goatee enters the office quietly to sign in. He is in his mid-30s and comes from a nearby city. This will be his seventh time on the cross.
No one else enters the crowded room that afternoon.
In a warren of rundown houses behind the town hall I find a group of boys and young men gathered around an outside table, laughing and drinking glasses of brandy and beer.
For some it will be the first time they are involved in the Good Friday penitential rituals.
“Some of us started four years ago, some three or two years ago, others are beginners,” says Rex Matawaran, pointing out the clearly nervous boy beside him, who’s trying to put on a brave face.
Like his father before him, Matawaran has been doing the annual penitence since he was 16 (he just turned 20) and has scars criss-crossing his back to prove it.
“It hurts when you do it, but just a bit — also, the more you hit the less painful it is,” he adds.
The group laugh and joke, trying to distract each other from the physical abuse that each one will willingly put himself through the following day.
Later, as I stand near the Calvary hill watching workers putting up the final barricades that will keep bystanders in line, I run into Enaje, who is sitting on a stump where tomorrow his cross will be inserted and locked into place. He is lost in his thoughts, smoking a cigarette.
“I get goose bumps just walking up here and thinking about the pain I will experience tomorrow,” he tells me, brushing his hair back behind his ear and looking out over the field from which the crowds and media will watch.
He eventually wanders off, presumably back to his home for a fitful night’s sleep.
BY 8AM THE NEXT MORNING hundreds of men, young and old, are already walking up and down the main avenue in town, swinging their bloodied whips against their lacerated backs as they fervently whisper prayers. The ground is already spattered and trailed with blood.
Most of the penitents have had their backs lacerated by glass or razors; every now and then one of the men stops to have someone reopen his wounds with a razorblade.
The growing crowd of onlookers, many clutching crosses to their chest, watch in awe at the procession of penitents and their bloody acts of worship.
A few local media crews are already milling around outside Enaje’s house, waiting for the day’s main events to begin. Inside, the family is preparing for the ordeal ahead. It’s not yet 9am but already blazing hot in San Pedro Cutud.
I find Enaje sitting inside. “I don’t have much of a morning ritual,” he tells me. Above him hang the white robes he will wear later in the day.
“I just wake up at 5.30, spend time with my family and neighbours, and drink some coffee. No breakfast.”
His daughter Rossmer is busy curling his hair with an electric curler to make him better resemble the iconic image of Jesus. Enaje himself is methodically sharpening the four nails that will be hammered through his flesh. “I’ve used these same four nails for the past 10 years,” he tells me. Enaje’s brother and uncle, both carpenters, are entrusted with the job of driving the nails home.
A group of men is gathering two doors up the street and in a few hours they will come, dressed as Roman soldiers, to drag Enaje off to the first Station of the Cross, but for the moment the house is calm.
Enaje has had the role of Jesus since 1992, when his predecessor retired. It is considered a particular honour. There is considerable controversy in the town over who will take his place, if Enaje retires next year as promised.
“There are a few people who want to become Jesus after Ruben, but they aren’t qualified,” Frederick Bangal had told me the day before. “They’re not good people, and we want our Jesus to be a good example.”
During my stay in San Pedro I heard rumours that there were two people pushing hard for the role, but one had only been getting crucified for a few years, which isn’t considered long enough, and the other had a drug problem. Given the high bar set by Enaje, neither seems a viable candidate.
As the time of the crucifixions approaches, Juanita Enaje gets visibly more upset. While Ruben enjoys the attention, Juanita tries to hide from the well-wishers and journalists.
“Every time Easter is coming I start to feel unwell because I know what is coming,” she tells me, out of the way of the crowds of friends and family that have invaded her family’s home.
“I am proud [of him], but I never watch. I can’t take it. I might collapse.”
Instead, Juanita has one of the children run back with word, once Ruben is down from the cross, that it is over for another year.
The heat doesn’t help Juanita’s mood. She knows that in the blazing afternoon heat some of those being crucified might last for just a few minutes before they need to be taken down and given medical aid.
“I try to stay on the cross for 10 minutes before they take me down,” Ruben had told me the day before. “Once, it was so hot and painful that I passed out on the cross after three minutes and they had to pull the nails out and carry me down unconscious.”
At the appointed hour the group of men appear in outfit and Juanita watches as they drag her husband away.
There are no tears, no goodbye, she simply stands in the doorway, turns slowly around, gives me a weary smile as if to say she will be okay and returns to the safety of her home.
RUBEN ENAJE HAS STARTED his long journey as Jesus, a journey that will take him from the garden of Gethsemne, through the interview with Pontius Pilate and along the bitter road to Calvary.
As the crowds hustle around him, Enaje is led from one Station to the next. It is hard to know how much of the sadness and fear — clearly etched on his face as he drags the 40 kilogram cross through the centre of town — is real and how much is him being in character, as each Station brings him one step closer to the crowds that have gathered at the far end of the village to watch his ultimate pain and suffering.
During the walk I come across a few of the young men from last night, who are now part of the informal procession and proudly show me their lacerated backs and the scabs that are already forming — a sign of their promises to God, but also a local mark of manhood.
By the time we arrive at the site of Calvary the crowds are thousands strong and those following part with nervous excitement as Enaje make his final journey up the hill.
The pageantry is done. Under the scorching sun the soldiers quickly lay him on the cross and a hammer is brought down hard on the palm of his left hand. He screams, and when they drive the next nail into his right hand his legs kick out in agony. Next come the feet, which are held down as the nails are driven in. It is painful to watch, and must be immeasurably more painful to feel.
Soon Enaje is hoisted into the air, as are two other volunteers who have gone through the same excruciating ordeal — each of them supported by cloth tied around the cross and under their arms to take their body weight, and help prevent any tearing of the wounds — and there they stay for more than 10 minutes, reliving a small part of the pain and suffering that Christians believe Jesus went through on the cross.
Nervous energy runs through the thousands packed into the tight space around the crosses, as even those who have come before are unsure whether to feel excited, uncomfortable or mortified. Most silently watch on, sharing the occasional awkward laugh or comment with those nearest them.
High on his cross, pain etched in his face, Enaje lets out an occasional scream of anguish. He doesn’t pass out, but it is clear just from looking at him that every second is taking its toll.
After 10 minutes Enaje is taken down to be replaced by others. He cries out again as the nails are removed from his hands and feet, and is carried off to the nearby medical tent.
Only nine men (no women) have volunteered this year in San Pedro, but the proceedings still take over an hour as each new volunteer is hoisted up and then brought down to be replaced by another. The crowd becomes visibly excited as each new man is brought forward. One of the volunteers stays up for half an hour, though most last only 10 minutes.
After the men are brought down, some stagger off to the medical tent but others need to be carried on a stretcher. One man stands up straight after and walks off down the hill.
The final man must go through his ordeal with the crowd all around him, because the barricades have given way to those wanting to witness the nails in flesh up close, and the onlookers have swarmed up the hill. But finally, he too is brought down from the cross.
Soon the crowd begins to thin. The spectacle is over.
After the last of the men is taken down from the cross, I go looking for Enaje. I find him still in the field, a short distance from where the ordeal took place. He is back to wearing shorts and a scruffy T-shirt and baseball cap. Around his hands and feet are wads of bandaging.
“I feel okay,” he says, with a relieved look on his face. “Just one more year, and then no more.”