The Crucifixion in Pampanga : Holy Week Philippines Bathed in Blood

The crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, is the highlight of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, here devotees get crucified in San Pedro Cutud, photo by Ivan Kralj
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Children posing next to the crosses that will be a central point of the crucifiction in Pampanga, San Fernando, San Pedro Cutud, during Maleldo 2019, the Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Boy offering water to one of the Magdarame devotees who relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
A woman chanting pabasa, a passion of Christ during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, in San Fernando, Pampanga, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Kids covered in blood in the streets of San Fernando. Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Member of the organising committee showing the nails that will be used in the crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, the baray of San Juan, which is one of the highlights of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Member of the organising committee showing the nails that will be used in the crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, the baray of San Juan, which is one of the highlights of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Wilfredo Salvador (62) carrying a wooden cross before going through the crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, the baray of San Juan, which is one of the highlights of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Wilfredo Salvador (62) being being crucified in Pampanga, San Fernando, the baray of San Juan, which is one of the highlights of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Wilfredo Salvador (62) being treated by the medical team after the crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, the baray of San Juan, which is one of the highlights of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
The crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, is the highlight of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, here Roman soldier hitting a woman who tried to help Jesus Christ before crucifixion in Santa Lucia, photo by Ivan Kralj
The crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, is the highlight of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, here devotees get crucified in Santa Lucia, photo by Ivan Kralj
The crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, is the highlight of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, Ruben Enaje playing Jesus for 33rd time, photo by Ivan Kralj
The crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, is the highlight of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, here devotees get crucified in San Pedro Cutud, photo by Ivan Kralj
Ruben Enaje got crucified playing Jesus Christ for the 33rd time, here showing his wrapped palm wounds at Maleldo 2019, in San Pedro Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
The crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, is the highlight of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, here devotees get crucified in San Pedro Cutud, photo by Ivan Kralj
Angelito Mengilio, one of the crucified devotees at Maleldo 2019, showing his wrapped palm wounds in San Pedro Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
The crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, is the highlight of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, here devotees get crucified in San Pedro Cutud, photo by Ivan Kralj
Mary Jane Sazon, one of the crucified devotees at Maleldo 2019, showing her wrapped palm wounds in San Pedro Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj

I was kneeling in my room at Casa Chico, hunched over my bag. I wasn’t praying, just trying to rub away the dried blood stains. The AC was on maximum, and I felt that the strength had left my body, covered by a shiny film of sweat. After a long day under the tropical sun and 34 degrees Celsius, which made quite a few people faint, the cold water from the fridge was cooling me down, but slowly. “Wear something dark”, everyone was telling me days before. The dark attracted the sunshine, but at least blood drops were less visible. Good Friday in San Fernando, Pampanga province, was a bloody culmination of the Holy Week Philippines!

Penitents carrying heavy crosses through the villages, whipping themselves with bamboo sticks, or going through an actual crucifixion in Pampanga, they were all experiencing the passion of Christ in his last days. The Holy Week, known locally as Maleldo, is an extreme celebration of the Filipino Easter, especially in the villages of Santa Lucia, San Juan and the most famous – San Pedro Cutud.

Holy Week traditions in the Philippines – the origin

Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Flagellating yourself for the love of God – this devotee didn’t even know that his wound ended up being heart-shaped

Just one week before the bloodiest Christian holiday I’ve ever witnessed, a freelance journalist/writer from Manila explained what I could expect from this controversial event, 80 kilometers north of the capital. “You get to see a lot of people hurting themselves”, Troy Bernardo told me. “For a religion such as Christianity, that should promote peace, the violence that penitents do to themselves is a sort of a jarring image.”

While the Church today discourages these radical religious practices in the Philippines, because self-harm is contrary to its teaching on the body, the Spanish friars were the ones who brought the idea of the penitencia (repentance for one’s sins) in the late 16th century. The missionaries introduced scourging oneself with religious zeal – disciplina – in the Canon Diego de Leon.

“Back then, the Catholic Church was mostly for the wealthy and passage through heaven’s gates depended on how much one paid the friars for indulgence”, Bernardo wrote in his media coverage of the Holy Week celebration in the Philippines. “Unable to afford the financial demands of the Church, the poor spun their own way of paying for the indulgence: physical sacrifice.”

After witnessing Maleldo festival once, Bernardo never returned to San Pedro Cutud. And he believed he never would: “The expression of violence within this religion can be difficult to watch.”

Ruben Enaje nailed to the cross again

Ruben Enaje got crucified playing Jesus Christ for the 33rd time, here showing his wrapped palm wounds at Maleldo 2019, in San Pedro Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Ruben Enaje showing his wounds after the crucifixion in Pampanga – San Pedro Cutud

For several decades, Christians in this predominantly Catholic country have no difficulty watching Ruben Enaje‘s crucifixion. Exactly for 33 years, one for each year of Christ’s life, this Filipino painter went through crucifixion on Good Friday. Every year, crowds were getting bigger and bigger. But Ruben was not getting any younger. Jesus Superstar of San Pedro Cutud crucifixion was 58 on his most recent nailing.

The actors playing Christ in the crucifixion reenactment in other districts were also not Jesus in his best years. Wilfredo Salvador who played the Son of God in San Juan was 62, while Melchor Mentoya in Sta. Lucia got crucified as a 64-year-old. Was there a shortage of Jesuses who wouldn’t need to dye their gray hair? Would Ruben Enaje continue getting four-inch nails hammered into his palms and feet until, well – his death?

“I plan to stop next year”, he told me, while casually smoking a cigarette after his 33rd crucifixion. It almost seemed as if it became a routine, but the pain was certainly there and stopping it was a part of the plan. Then again, Ruben Enaje was announcing his retirement from the role of Jesus since 2013!

“There is still no one who would want to be the next one. Nobody wants to replace me!”, Ruben told me.

Searching for the next Jesus

The crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, is the highlight of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, Ruben Enaje playing Jesus for 33rd time, photo by Ivan Kralj
The ideal “Christ” should be a man, local, Catholic, and not too much full of himself. Criteria is hard to fulfill, so Ruben Enaje just keeps getting crucified!

There were several people crucified after the main play finished. Couldn’t they consider some of them for the reenactment of Jesus crucifixion?

“He should be a resident here! They are from other barangays (districts)”, Ruben explained.

The hypersensitive residential policy was not as strict in the past. For instance, the ban of foreign participation came only in 2015, to “prevent the Lenten rites from becoming a circus”. They decided this after some foreigners backed out at the last moment. Also, some were misrepresenting themselves or their goals, such as the Japanese who wanted to join 1996 crucifixions for a scene in a porn movie.

From the local pool, the supply of potential Jesuses was getting shorter every year. However, San Fernando streets were full of men flagellating themselves and bleeding. Was there no successor among them?

“It seems those people are afraid to get nailed. They just do the flagellation, but they do not want to go through the crucifixion!”, Ruben Enaje told me. “I scream because I’m in severe pain. That is not acting!”

The first crucifixion in Pampanga

The first crucifixion in the Philippines took place in 1962. Arsenio Añoza (in some accounts, he was called Artemio) was a faith healer in the town of Apalit. On Good Friday, he volunteered to get crucified at the climax of Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), the local senakulo (passion play) written by Ricardo Navarro in 1955, in local Kapampangan language, and staged in San Pedro, Pampanga, ever since (later by Navarro’s son Rolando and his grandson Allan).

Añoza explained his decision to go through an actual crucifixion as a “means to get closer to Christ in his passion”. He performed the crucifixion at Pampanga festival annually, until 1976.

Bleeding in trance

Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
With the help of razor-sharp glass, flagellant’s back starts to bleed and then he just needs to keep on whipping

The crucifixion has always been reenacted on Good Friday, the same day when Jesus was nailed to the cross.

I arrived in San Fernando four days before the crucifixion day. Penitence (or penitensya) was very visible on Maundy Thursday, as well as the earlier days of the Holy Week.

Hundreds and hundreds of barechested men, often with hooded faces to hide their identity, marched barefoot through the village roads, flogging their backs with burillo, bamboo sticks attached to the rope. This would increase the blood drip from the cuts they previously did with panabad, a paddle tipped with broken glass, or with simple razor blades.

Supposedly, the bleeding would make them fall into a trance and experience a sense of elation later, called ginhawa.

Christians are not the only ones who undergo the rituals of self-harm in order to reach a greater level of devotion. Check out how Hindus do it for Thaipusam in Malaysia!

Panata – making a deal with God

Self-flagellation was a ritual of atonement for their sins or a fulfillment of a vow for someone else.

“Maybe they have a family member who is sick or a sibling who is disabled suddenly”, Troy, the journalist, told me. “Sometimes, they also do it to cleanse their own sins. Some of them may have been in prison. They may have hurt other people. To get rid of all of that, they go through this process.”

Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
There are many ways to make your panata, and none of them is a piece of cake

In Tagalog, they called this promise made to God a – panata. It was a solemn agreement between the believer and the Almighty in which they exchanged suffering for wish fulfillment, a religious vow trade.

They called these people magdarame. With religious tattoos, rosary strings around their hands, veiled faces, and heads decorated with branches and vines resembling Christ’s crown of thorns, they carried heavy wooden crosses (mamusan krus), crawled on the burning asphalt for miles (pamagsalibatbat) or flagellated their bleeding backs (pamamalaspas). The process would imprint red stamps on their back, resembling bloody lungs or even hearts.

Blood on the faces of the children

In the days leading to Good Friday, one could see a lot of magdarame lashing themselves in their individual procession through the villages. They only stopped at puni. There were many improvized community-erected chapels like that.

These places came with palm-leaves decorated altars and loud sound systems so that everyone could hear the pabasa. The rhythmical chanting of the passion of Christ (Pasyon, a Philippine epic poem from 1704) went on and on, day and night, throughout the Filipino Holy Week. Chanters in this trad-style karaoke were all volunteers and, 24 hours a day, there was always someone behind the microphone.

Boys following the flagellants' procession at Maleldo 2019 in San Fernando, Pampanga, covered in red blood spots, photo by Ivan Kralj
Whether you are a participant, or just want to witness the flagellants’ parade, you will have to endure blood drops flying around!

When arriving at puni, magdarame would kneel in prayer. Then they would lay face-down on the dirty ground in a pose of crucified Christ. Others in their company, often young boys, would use the wooden sticks to hit their thighs and calves. Some jumped into this role of little Roman soldiers with bloodthirsty eyes, which was painful to watch. Some offered a glass of water after the beating penance, in genuine compassion for suffering.

On Good Friday, the numbers of flagellants grew high. They were marching in two lines, and the blood was splattering everywhere. It was apparent why the organizers printed their official T-shirts in red color!

Young and old, babies and grannies, they all showed up to watch this yearly ritual from the first row. Some women used umbrellas to protect themselves from the red shower. The kids that were following the procession were covered in spots of blood, head to toes.

Some flagellants even started their whipping ritual when they were only 15 years old. In Paombong, Bulacan, in 2018, a 15-year-old boy even got crucified!

Dehumanizing the act of suffering

Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Parents let their toddlers participate or at least watch the brutal ceremony of Maleldo

I wasn’t sure what to think about this blood frenzy on the streets of San Fernando.

From one side, it could be an annual ventilation opportunity, where violence became justified by the Easter reenactment, so it would never repeat again.

On the other hand, I felt this was completely dehumanizing the act of suffering. Yes, some toddlers, girls, and women watched it in obvious shock. Even the dogs couldn’t help but express their fear through desperately barking at the bleeding caravan. But the majority behaved neutral in front of the whipped ones as if nothing unusual was happening. Some even had these sparkling eyes, obviously enjoying the violence while spanking the flagellants with their flip flops.

Many had their phone cameras and selfie sticks out, ready to report the passion of Christ live if needed. On Friday, TV crews were stationed on the elevated platform just next to the crucifixion site, drones were flying above the thousands of visitors, while the section for the best viewing of the event was reserved for the “very important persons” (or VIP).

Is Easter in the Phillippines all about exhibitionism and voyeurism?

The first day I visited the Calvary, when they just erected the crosses and started preparing the site for Good Friday, some locals asked me if I wanted to take a selfie at the cross. While I did say ‘no’ to this strange offer, teenagers were climbing the crosses and posing for their Instagram feeds.

Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
A boy posing next to a flagellant. He has a stick, which means that he is participating. But does he truly understand what is the purpose of all of that?

There was certain exhibitionism among the participants too. Many times when I would photograph the exhausted flagellant on the floor, a kid with a stick would enter the frame and pose with a smile and approving hand gesture as if violence was suddenly a cool thing to memorize. On the other side, some local flagellants would pull my sleeve even before the events, asking me if I wanted to photograph their wounds from yesteryears. There was undoubtedly a level of showing off connected to this manly act of self-flagellation.

As a person who was not a practical believer, I felt strange to witness all of this. While local authorities were blaming foreigners for transforming their traditional event into “a circus”, it was a surprise to learn that I had higher respect or greater boundaries about what was appropriate or not.

Holy Week (Mahal na Araw in Filipino, or Semana Santa in Spanish) is the final week of Lent. The dates are defined by the date of Easter Sunday, which falls on different date every year.

Here are the dates of the Holy Week (Palm Sunday-Holy Saturday) in the following years:

2020 – April 5th – April 11th

2021 – March 28th – April 3rd

2022 – April 10th – April 16th

2023 – April 2nd – April 8th

2024 – March 24th – March 30th

2025 – April 13th – April 19th

The smell of blood made them faint

Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Holy Week brings blood to San Fernando. Not everyone can take it!

During the gory parade through the streets of San Juan, an older woman produced a loud groan and fell in front of the flagellating spectacle. A crowd quickly surrounded her like vultures, interested to see what happened. The floggers continued their march.

At the medical assistance tent, just next to San Juan crucifixion site, I witnessed another unconscious woman being brought on the chair.

“She fainted because she smelled blood”, doctor Weng Salas explained later. “Also, she didn’t eat any breakfast, and she is even pregnant, in her first trimester.”

Obviously, not everyone was capable of witnessing harming people as just a benign traditional custom. The blood-spurting spectacle could curdle many people’s blood! But then, how do we know if those who chose to get crucified were ready for it?

Who can handle the real nails on the Easter cross?

Wilfredo Salvador (62) being treated by the medical team after the crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, the baray of San Juan, which is one of the highlights of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Wilfredo Salvador is getting medical attention after his crucifixion. But also the voyeuristic one from the crowd.

“Before the crucifixion, we check their vital signs”, the doctor explained. “We need to check the person’s health, to see if they are fit for the crucifixion, and we need to have their consent if they are willing to do it.”

It was slightly bizarre to see an emergency medical team ready to assist someone who wants to harm oneself. While this could pose so many ethical dilemmas, the same like euthanasia or assisted suicide, it seemed that the first aid teams here were aware they couldn’t stop these dangerous rituals, so at least they could give the support for the crucified ones.

In the long history of crucifixions here (and they started in 1962!), everyone “resurrected” so far. The person who was nailing the devotees was already used to hit the right spot, between the bones, for minimized damage. So everyone eventually recovered.

“After the crucifixion, we immediately check the wounds and dress them. These are dirty wounds, so we need to keep them opened. We give antiseptic, povidone-iodine, and we give antitetanus for prevention of tetanus. Of course, we need to give antibiotic medications too and advise them on how to clean the wound. No surgery should be done. Usually, it takes a week to heal”, doctor Salas explained.

Define crucify

Member of the organising committee showing the nails that will be used in the crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, the baray of San Juan, which is one of the highlights of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
The nails are real and kept in alcohol, for sterilization

In case you were a doubting Thomas: yes, they were using real nails at Filipino crucifixion rituals. One of the staff members showed them to me just minutes before this taboo event. They placed them in the glass jar with alcohol for disinfection. Two for palms and two for feet. Later, they would hammer them through the limbs of the local Kristo, holding him fixed on the wooden cross with “INRI” sign attached.

The Philippines Good Friday crucifixion was a culmination of senakulo, the reenactment of the passion of Jesus Christ. Public places were stages for the Stations of the Cross, a drama in which amateur actors played villagers, priests, Roman centurions, and of course Jesus Christ.

When the 62-year-old Wilfredo Salvador, with gray hair and beard, walked to his Golgotha for the crucifixion, he met Mary on the way, as the Biblical story goes. It was unusual to see Christ’s mother at least twice as young as Christ himself, but the shortage of local Jesuses did not allow for a more realistic play.

When the crucifixion nails penetrated Wilfredo’s old hands, the play was suddenly very real. He did not act out his moans and painful grimace. His blood was not fake.

Why couldn’t Jesus be a – woman?

Mary Jane Sazon, one of the crucified devotees at Maleldo 2019, showing her wrapped palm wounds in San Pedro Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Mary Jane Sazon carrying her crucifixion wounds with a smile

After they crucified Ruben Enaje in San Pedro Cutud, the stage welcomed other volunteers who came to be nailed to the cross. One of them was Mary Jane Sazon, a 44-year-old mother from Sta. Lucia, a different barangay.

“She is not from San Pedro Cutud, so she cannot play Jesus, I assume?”, I asked the blasphemous question.

“Noooo! And she is female, so… We prefer a male!”, a media staff person explained, looking confused about my question.

So: they do not allow her to play Jesus. But why is the idea of a woman’s crucifixion possible in the first place? Why do they let her defiling the Golgotha with her female blood?

It was hard for me to understand the complex rules of what was appropriate or what was not appropriate in San Pedro Cutud Lenten rites.

In all three versions of the senakulo play, Jesus always seemed to be twice as old as his mother. While gray Jesus (and according to what we know, they crucified Jesus when he was 33) was bearable for the organizers, the notion of residency or gender of the actor were not questionable; they were almost dogmatic.

Miracles of the Philippines crucifixion

The crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, is the highlight of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, here devotees get crucified in San Pedro Cutud, photo by Ivan Kralj
Mary Jane Sazon believes that her few minutes on the cross can bring her benefits for the whole year!

Mary Jane had no intention to replace Ruben Enaje anyway. She was not doing it for the show. Her panata in the past were her own severe headaches, her sister’s sickness, and so on. In 2019, this was her 16th crucifixion! If she was coming back to the painful ordeal, did it mean that real crucifixion had the curing power?

“My son had heart problems, he was often sick”, she confessed. “But after the crucifixion, the problem was gone! My son got better! He is 15 now, and he doesn’t have any problems. Now, my mother is sick, so I do it for her. Every time I get crucified, I experience a miracle!”

“How painful is crucifixion for you?”, I asked.

“It’s ok. Ok! I’m just a little bit hungry now”, she answered.

When you hear it like that, it doesn’t sound like a bad transaction at all. Securing your relatives’ health in exchange for nailing yourself, and some temporary hunger? How does that deal sound to you?

God works in mysterious ways

Angelito Mengilio returned to the Good Friday cross for the 12th time now. He was doing it for his mother, who has passed away.

Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
The belief that good beating of your loved ones could bring positive outcome is kind of disturbing

Did it hurt, a natural question popped up again.

“This is a miracle!”, a woman standing next to him pulled the M-word as well. “He will heal in a matter of days!”

Ruben Enaje, with so many crucifixions behind his back, should have a history of miracles. And yet, every year, he found the new reason to sustain the pain. In early years, he was doing it to thank God for surviving the fall from the construction building. This year, he wished for good health for his family. And work. Did it help?

“Right now, on Monday, I start working. I got a job!”, Ruben explained the efficiency of his crucifixion rites, in the most straightforward way. He didn’t doubt that the intervention was divine.

It might be hard to find some of these. You will thank me for the GPS locations of the main crucifixion sites in San Fernando, Pampanga:

San Pedro Cutud – 15°0'43.7'' N, 120°41'50.1'' E

Santa Lucia – 15°01'11.4'' N, 120°41'0.4'' E

San Juan – 15°01'20.3'' N, 120°40'37.1'' E

Crucifixion today, income tomorrow

San Fernando city mayor Edwin Santiago often referred to Maleldo as a celebration that highlights Fernandino culture and heritage, but also gives “the chance to reflect on Christ’s saving action in our lives”.

Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Showing up in San Fernando, Pampanga, and not sharing it online – it would just be a sin, right?

Cutud crucifixion festival definitely made Pampanga a tourist spot. While Philippines tourism was mostly relying on a fascinating number and diversity of islands and beaches, there were more and more visitors who aligned their Philippines holidays with San Fernando crucifixion.

Religious festivals could indeed become a reason to visit Philippines. But how did Pampanga’s transformation into a tourist spot change the life of the penitents? Are their awards always just miraculous ones?

“Crucifixion is voluntary. There is no compensation”, Ruben revealed. “In some places, they will pay the crucified. But here in San Pedro, it’s voluntary. I think that if I got paid, my wishes would not come true!”

In a T-shirt with the image of Che Guevara, the controversial figure that Ruben called his hero, this painter and construction worker preferred doing business with God than with the community that rubbed hands in the shadow of the cross he bared. Hotels and buses were full. Souvenir whips sale was flourishing (50 pesos or 80 cents only!). At every corner, they were offering drinks and meals (even, oh blasphemy in the times of fasting, the roasted pig!). It did feel as if a circus has come to town!

Holy Week Philippines between beliefs and superstitions

Magdarame devotees relive Christ's passion by carrying heavy crosses and flagellating themselves in San Fernando, Pampanga, during the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
San Fernando is the town where faith and superstition are hard to differentiate

Filipino Easter crucifixion was embedded in folk beliefs that could be even called Holy Week superstitions. Some Catholics in the Philippines went so far that, in fear of bad luck, they avoided taking a bath or doing laundry after 3 pm on Good Friday (the time of Christ’s death). Children were discouraged from playing outside because, with the dead God, evil spirits could get them.

In the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Fernando, I’ve seen people rubbing the image of Christ on the cross, and then repeating the same rubbing on their own corresponding body part.

After the devastating eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, many flagellants made vows to petition for the floods not to return.

The faith here was both literal and mysterious, grounded in reality, but hoping for miracles. And no Church condemnation would be able to stop the display of devotion, no matter how extreme or fanatical it got.

The senseless act of sacrifice

The crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, is the highlight of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, here devotees get crucified in Santa Lucia, photo by Ivan Kralj
For me, the most powerful staging of Christ’s Passion in 2019 was produced in Santa Lucia

In barangay of Santa Lucia, at artificial Golgotha erected just next to the basketball field, I witnessed probably the best-staged drama of the famous three. Yes, one could criticize the pompous music or the fact that they decorated the stage with posters displaying images of Jesus crucifixion (which just needed to happen!). The actors were still amateurs, but there was something powerful in this particular San Fernando passion play. For a start, Melchor Mentoya as Jesus didn’t look 64, and the Mother of God did not look 18.

But far from just being believable, this Good Friday crucifixion was touching. The violence of the Roman soldiers was convincing. Hitting the woman who tried to help Jesus sounded too loud to be fake.

I have to admit that at the moment of crucifixion in Sta. Lucia, some tears did fill my eyes. It was the first moment when I felt that the essence of Christ’s story was revived. The whole experience was utterly senseless. You see this person suffering in memory of Christ’s death. It didn’t make sense. Why did it need to happen? It was communicating the same senselessness as Christ’s own death on the cross. What did he die for?

What would Jesus do in San Pedro Cutud?

Wilfredo Salvador (62) carrying a wooden cross before going through the crucifixion in Pampanga, San Fernando, the baray of San Juan, which is one of the highlights of the Maleldo 2019, Holy Week Philippines, photo by Ivan Kralj
Can the history of blood frenzy ever be reversed?

When two millennia ago, Pontius Pilate asked the crowd if they wanted to release the notorious criminal Barabbas or Jesus Christ, the mob chose to see the blood of Messiah. If they would have had mobile phones in that era, I believe Youtube would be full of amateur videos recording the innocent death of Jesus, and competing for likes.

Have we evolved in mercy, or did the evil win? In 1984, a local priest tried to ban flagellation and crucifixion in San Pedro, Pampanga. He did not succeed.

If we would accept the story of Jesus giving his life for us, why did we end up on the side of the historical losers?

What if, I ask you, Pontius Pilate in the reenactment of Christ’s passion decided one year that he wouldn’t allow the crucifixion of that man? Would it be a historical tragedy or a true celebration of Christian love?

If you want to see more of penitensya, check this Good Friday crucifixion video on Youtube:

PRACTICAL INFO FOR ATTENDING THE CRUCIFIXION IN PAMPANGA

How to get to San Fernando, Pampanga

If you want to witness penitensya in the Philippines, the best solution is to go to where it all started!

The most convenient way to reach San Fernando in Pampanga from Manila is by taking a Victory Liner bus. One needs to take a bus to Olongapo via San Fernando. It is possible to leave from Pasay, Caloocan Cubao and Sampaloc Terminal.

The schedules depend on the terminal, but usually they start at 4 am, with every hour interval until 8 pm. You can buy your ticket on the spot; come at least one hour before the desired time of departure!

I went to San Fernando from Cubao Terminal, and the ticket cost me 111 pesos (2 Euros).

Where to stay in San Fernando, Pampanga

The hotels in San Fernando, Pampanga, could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Most of the visitors who traveled to witness the Holy Week in Pampanga, usually stayed in the city of Angeles, 12 kilometers to the North. However, this involved commuting by jeepneys and tricycles in order to reach the villages where crucifixions were taking place.

I stayed in Casa Chico, an Airbnb property in Greenville, which was just 1,6 km from the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Fernando, or a 20-minute walk. It was also a stone throw away from the SM City Pampanga, where buses from Manila stopped. Tricycle ride to the sites of crucifixion was short and they would typically charge me 100-120 pesos (less than 2 Euros).

Casa Chico had quite a few, simply furnished rooms with shared bathroom and kitchen. As the owners operated a catering business that supplied local shops with food, it was also possible to eat a local-flavored meal for just 150 pesos (2,5 Euros only!). They call Pampanga the culinary capital of the Philippines for a reason, so definitely try traditional dishes!

The price of the stay at Casa Chico was 16 dollars per day. It might be basic accommodation, but staying there might be the most practical choice for anyone wanting to experience the crucifixion in Pampanga.

If you are not easily disturbed, check the whole gallery of the Holy Week Philippines images in Pampanga!

 

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Crucifixion in Pampanga is the central event of Maleldo, the Holy Week Philippines. Before devotees get crucified on Good Friday, streets of San Fernando get filled with magdarame, flagellants who try to relive Christ's passion by carrying crosses, crawling or whipping themselves. Maleldo in San Pedro Cutud is the bloodiest Christian holiday one can imagine!

Disclosure: My stay at Casa Chico was partly sponsored, but all opinions are my own.
Ivan Kralj

Editor

Award-winning journalist and editor from Croatia

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