Friday, April 14, 2006

Wasn't One Crucifixion Enough?

JESUS CHRIST was crucified many times all over the Philippine Archipelago today. The ultimate in Good Friday reality shows is to be found in places like Barangay Cutud, a depressed little barrio on the outskirts of San Fernando City, in Pampanga, the home province of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Here the re-enactment of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ are taken to literal extremes and come complete with a local troupe of flagellants and multiple live crucifixions. These events are avidly covered by the European, American and Asian press for reliably sensational Easter weekend front page photos. Twice I've taken video footage and digital photos of Good Friday at Bgy Cutud, the first time in 1997, when a Belgian Nun, was crucified at Cutud's Golgotha, along with nine men, and again in 2004, when most of the photos in this post were taken. [CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO VIEW THEM FULL SIZE]

The Programme of Events at Barangay Cutud goes like this. At dawn the chanting of the Pabasa, or reading of Biblical Passion passages greets the group of men who've chosen to participate as flagellants, who gather at an empty lot near the small Catholic Church. They are passing around familiar bottles of San Miguel gin -- (the stuff that can make you blind, called gin bulag). Their heads and faces are covered with leaves and kerchiefs to hide their true identity, though of course all the locals know who they are, especially the shy but admiring barrio lasses). The flagellants form two lines, as the barrio captain breaks a bottle on a nearby stone wall, and picking the larger shards with scythe-like edges, carefully cuts fine, shallow lines on the backs and shoulders of the men, which immediately turn a bright crimson from freely bleeding capillaries. Each flagellant carries with him a whip with wooden staves that he applies on himself with blood-splattering strokes and convincing sounds of hard matter encountering raw human flesh. Onlookers are invited to deliver their own punishing blows on the men, who will lie prostrate on the dusty streets of Cutud and demand a lashing from the many curiosity seekers and tourist on-lookers. Such encounters are often recorded by usually incredulous foreign first-timers. Throughout the morning, as the sun mounts to its zenith at noon, the crowd at Golgotha views the three crosses that will be used by up to twenty persons to re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Their arrival is signalled by the most improbable sight -- a Roman centurion bearing a long spear and riding a tall white stallion with Roman cavalry headgear for the horse. But one after another, properly attired and with studied poses, the crucifixions are mounted, with time on the Cross limited to about 15 minutes per person (so as to be finished by 3:00 pm). These self-flagellations and live crucifixions are an impressive display when viewed from a distance. However, though only one Person in History has ever reputedly survived a crucifixion, none have so far succumbed to the fatal loss of blood and asphyxiation that usually accompanies a crucifixion among Barangay Cutud's penitents. There are two outstanding reasons why these Philippine crucifixions are more dramatic theatre than anything else. First, no one is actually hanging from the cross on nails, as all have a nice little horizontal foot platform to stand on, as shown. Likewise, there is the business of the nails themselves, which I like to describe as photogenic nails, designed and deployed for front page photographs -- they have very large heads, but look at the size of the piercing shaft. Doubtless, it is still an ordeal, though nothing like what the ancient Romans could do to a recalcitrant, rebellious Jew.

On top of this lil bit of fakery, Philippine crucifixion events have become tourist spectacles, attended by both locals and foreigners for their ability to fill up the usually dead hours of Holy Week, when everything shuts down and the populace is on vacation somewhere like Boracay or California. Here we have three Mary Magdalenas, complete with bloody imprints of Jesus' visage, (probably Manileños on a Good Friday visit to Calvary in Pampanga.) As with Christmas, crass commercialization has taken over even the most sombre of Christian holy days. The little burg of Cutud gets a tidy income from the large influx of ogglers and curiosity seekers.

Why does the Roman Catholic Church tolerate these sadomasochistic exploitations of the Passion? Although the institutional Church itself does not participate in, condone or encourage these Lenten week practices, neither does she speak out against them or issue Pastoral Letters condemning the idolatrous mockeries that commercializing Christ's passion and death seem to represent.

Perhaps because these exotic and extreme acts are not at all limited to the peasants of Barrio Cutud, but find analogous practices among the elite, the creme de la creme of Catolico cerrado Philippine society, such as the "Christianist" Opus Dei and its rather, uhmm bizarre articles of personal clothing and accessory. ABSCBN's Ricky Carandang and Pia Hontiveros have a special on the Da Vinci Code and they got to talk to a number of priests and laymen, including Father Michaelangelo Cardenas of the Opus Dei Theological Center at the University of Asia and Pacific. Fr. Cardenas, apparently along with many senior members of Opus Dei, wears a CILICE (pronounced SILL-iss) described by Wikipedia as follows (with a picture) --
In more recent times the word has come to refer to a spiked metal belt or chain worn strapped tight around the upper thigh. This practice has existed in various parts of the Roman Catholic Church, but has become associated in the twentieth century with the Catholic personal prelature known as Opus Dei...The use of the cilice on the upper thigh is a prominent signature trait of Silas, a fictional member of Opus Dei, and one of the lead antagonists in Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code.
SPECULATION: But I think the institutional hierarchy tolerate these mock crucifixions and self-flagellations because as acts of literal, physical imitation of events at the very origin of Christianity, they do proclaim an unquestioning fealty and submission to the Faith (or the Work, as the case may be) and an affirmation of its core narratives about those events. Moreover, I don't think that the Republic as such, has ever enjoyed any equivalent fanatical demonstration of loyalty and devotion to its national legends and myths as spectacular and world-renowned as our crucifixions and self-punishments at Lent (and at other times!) Maybe some Catholic Church leaders find this flattering, or comforting, in an odd sort of way.

CHRISTIANISTS AND ISLAMISTS: Andrew Sullivan produces a lethal neologism, after taking off on an incandescent article by Garry Willis (History Professor emeritus, Northwestern University and author of What Jesus Meant), entitled, Christ Among the Partisans, a passionate defense of why the Catholic Church should stand above mere politics (and fight for what I have called eternal principles --
Some people want to display and honor the Ten Commandments as a political commitment enjoined by the religion of Jesus. That very act is a violation of the First and Second Commandments. By erecting a false religion — imposing a reign of Jesus in this order — they are worshiping a false god. They commit idolatry. They also take the Lord's name in vain.

Some may think that removing Jesus from politics would mean removing morality from politics. They think we would all be better off if we took up the slogan "What would Jesus do?"

That is not a question his disciples ask in the Gospels. They never knew what Jesus was going to do next. He could round on Peter and call him "Satan." He could refuse to receive his mother when she asked to see him. He might tell his followers that they are unworthy of him if they do not hate their mother and their father. He might kill pigs by the hundreds. He might whip people out of church precincts.

And I haven't even touched on the idolatry of the Filipinos in public life.

15 comments:

Amadeo said...

I read Wills' piece when it first came out, which was in the middle of the heated debates on illegal immigration. When democrats started to also invoke Christ as their champion on their side of the debates, then more secularists got into the act.

I find Wills' piece too radical to be realitically useful. One gets the sense that he simply just wants to be anti-thetical about what is out there regarding the role of Christianity in politics.

One has to be more skillful than a surgeon to completely separate one's religious beliefs with one's politics. It just doesn't happen with humanity.

He is much too much a complexity as an amalgam to easily lend to such kind of sterile separation. Somehow part of his faith will filter through and enter his politics.

Wills does make a good comparison between Christ and Socrates that even Christian theologians may agree partially. Based on our perception of human excellence, Socrates would also have an edge on Christ. I hope I have the time to write about this.

bernardo F. Ronquillo said...

DJB, I grieve over your opener: "Jesus Christ was crucified many times all over the Philippine Archipelago today."

The reason for my grief is the Apostle Paul's admonition in his letter to the Hebrews 10:10 "By the which we are all sanctified THROUGH THE OFFERING OF THE BODY OF CHRIST ONCE FOR ALL." KJV

Dean, Jesus Christ died ONCE and that is enough for ALL of mankind. MINSAN LANG PARA SA LAHAT. Believe!

Btw, thank you so much for this post, it was eagerly waited for and you did not dissappoint.

You talked about the Da Vinci Code, but have you heard about the Bible Codes? If not, go to www.biblecodedigest.com. Take a glimpse also at www.TheDiscipleWhomJesusLoved.com. You will be surprised. Happy Reading if you still have time.

Lord Dracula said...

Pinoys have brittle faith (kung meron man). They can't accept the fact that one sacrifice is enough. It's purely narcissism; by refusing to believe that their sins were already forgiven, they are acting as if they find God's sacrifice as insufficient. Marunong pa sila kay Lord, and that is narcissism to me.

Amadeo said...

Here's an outsider's take on the Cutud "festivities".

The British would-be crucified reneged at the last hour.

Claims God made him do it, i.e., not be crucified.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25689-2135354,00.html

Rizalist said...

Amadeo, Hope you do write a deeper review of Garry Willis article than I've been able to provide here. This is a different approach I think than that of Separation of Church and State, because in that political principle, it is the State declaring what its limits are. Here, it seems to be a religious principle that eschews politics from its lofty perspective--DISDAINING the exercise of the freedoms granted by the Constitution and declaring itself free of all politics. A quite revolutionary idea, I would think, tho he stresses it is at least 2000 years old.

BFR -- the Bible Codes aren't nearly half as interesting. I've ssen a mathematical debunking of it.

LD--Narcissism? Hmmm I didn't quite look at it like that. Interesting. You mean a kind of I am the Messiah sort of fantasy?

Lord Dracula said...

Hmmm.... I think it is narcissistic in the sense that they assume that what they are doing is acceptable to the God that they worship, which is not wrong in a certain sense. In essence they reject the sacrifice that Christ did, which is wrong. That is narcissistic thinking, even if unconsciously.

Arbet

Rizalist said...

arbet,
look at the picture above with a flagellant kneeling in front of some children, who are looking at him with curious eyes. His back is bloody from the whipping, and his head is covered with leaves and cloth. But I don't have any doubt that the kids know exactly who this particular person is. Probably a neighbor...or even...their own father! Now, when I interviewed one of the crucified to ask WHY they all did this sort of thing at Lent, he said simply that he was a sinful man and that this was his way of atoning for the evil things he had done, tho we didn't get into that. Probably this man we are talking about is also such a sinner. But if the kids know who he is, or maybe he is their father or uncle, then there might arise the natural suspicion of being guilty of "praying in public so people can see our piety." Jesus (and Garry Willis) castigate this a hypocrisy.

Now I can see how narcissism might creep in, if this man, (whom of course I am unfairly ASSUMING is being hypocritical) also admires himself for being so clever, convincing his kids he's actually ATONING for drinking, womanizing or beating them up all year long.

I think this business of displaying our holiness in public is a tad hypocritical and a way of saying, "See, I am holier than you might think I am."

Lord Dracula said...

Your last statement 'I think this business of displaying our holiness in public is a tad hypocritical and a way of saying, "See, I am holier than you might think I am."' is narcissistic in a way. We feel good trumping others.

Arbet

Dominique said...

Hi, Dean,

I've worn a cilice. Despite it's formidable looks, it's not really that bad. It's slightly uncomfortable at first...but that's about it. Besides, you're only supposed to wear it when you're at your desk, studying. It does wonders for concentration, especially at two in the afternoon. You should try it. Seriously!

And if people think that a cilice is bad, well, I wonder what they have to say about other modern instruments of torture...like the stationary bicycle, the nautilus machine, the rowing machine, and the stepper.

At least the cilice is kept hidden away, and not meant for show. Whatever good (or ill) it does the wearer, well, that's his or her business.

Rizalist said...

Dominique,
The cilice mentioned in the novel is a thigh-mounted type, but i guess the original cilices were coarse hairy shirts. But am puzzled at your analogy with exercise equipment. When you wore a cilice, did you lose weight too as a result? Concentration is certainly important in sports or any other endeavour, but how effective is pain at inducing concentration? Aerobics itself would be a real pain, and not the pleasure it ought to be, if self-mortification were its principal object. I don't know Dom, cilice or crucifix I just don't see the grace in it. Not even self-inflicted does it evince any merit.

Guess I have to try it?

Regarding the non-ostentatious nature of cilice wear, I have to agree, there are lots of exhibitionists in the boutique gyms by comparison.

But then, there is also a lot of public holiness to go around, in Masses, processions, and other rituals.

HILLBLOGGER said...

Dean,

You asked "Why does the Roman Catholic Church tolerate these sadomasochistic exploitations of the Passion?".

Offhand, I can only think of RCC's lack of moral courage to give em PRCs (Phil Roman Catholics) a piece of their mind and so couldn't tell them what these re-enactments really are: sadomasochistic exploitations of the Passion.

remingdoy rand said...

hi, I was just bloghopping and I came to this page. It is very informative.
--------------------
You people think too much. I do agree with the commodification of culture that is prevalent in this country. But what does it have to with their (the people in these pasyon rituals') preference on how to practice their faith? It's present: the Romano Katoliko is "Filipino" and hey, I'm not even Catholic. If these Roman Catholics would like to physically torture themselves it's worth it: It's better than emotional or mental torture that most metropolitan habitants are doing to themselves. But it do agree with the commodification of culture. Or maybe I just think less about this.

Being hypocritical and being a participant of a ritual are very different processes. Hypocrisy requires mental work. Rituals as I would see them as "psycho-spiritual" activities require something beyond the intellect. It would not require reason at a point. People would not care what their knowledge of "Christ" ("Christ" as an object to be thought of) would be but they would care more about the activities that other people do around and about this subject.
----
Or maybe I'm just thinking less and not making a point.

Or maybe I'm just uninspired by the "poetics" of this article. Bloghop uli! :)

Rizalist said...

A warm welcome to Philippine Commentary, Remingdoy Rand.

To be sure, there is no generalization possible about the motives of flagellants and the folks who nail themselves to lumber, in such an exhibitionistic manner. Perhaps there is a "psycho-spiritual" element, or even, without the spiritual part.

But if you find crucifixions a blase and harmless pastime at Lent, that's okay too. Most people drop them from the radar screen and ascribe them to the backwardness of others.

It is the audience to these events that really interest me. They are like people hypnotized by a cobra,
staring, stunned, and fascinated. Some leave with their spirituality diminished, muttering, even tittering.

Then they pay the parking fee and disappear. The flagellants bathe themselves with merthiolate and alcohol.

YO MOMZ said...

AS MUCH AS YOU PEOPLE TALK, CRITICIZE, OR GIVE YOUR OPINIONS ABUOT THIS....FILIPINOS ARE STILL GOING TO FOLLOW THIS RITUAL REGARDLESS. IT'S BEEN A TRADITION FOR YEARS AND THOSE WHO BELIEVE ARE THE ONLY ONES WHO KNOW WHY. BE MORE CULTURED. BE MORE OPEN-MINDED. ACCEPT THAT THIS IS APART OF THEM. THERE ARE SO MANY COUNTRIES THAT ARE DOING THINGS OUT OF THE NORM TO US BUT IS NORMAL TO THEM. NO ONE ON HERE HAS THE GUTS TO DO SOMETHING LIKE "CRUCIFY" THEMSELVES...I SURE DON'T. IF DOING THIS MAKES THEM FEEL BETTER ABOUT THEMSELVES...SO BE IT. IF THIS IS THE WAY THEY WANT TO PRESENT THEIR FAITH...SO BE IT. YOU CAN NOT LOOK AT THIS IN A PYSCHOLOGICAL, SOCIOLOGICAL, OR SCIENTIFIC MATTER FOR THESE THINGS CAN NOT EXPLAIN MIRACLES. THIS IS DEFINATELY A SPIRITUAL THING. SOMETHING DEEPER THAN WORDS CAN EXPLAIN.

SO BLAH BLAH...GO READ A HISTORY BOOK OR BETTER YET THE BIBLE. AT LEAST THESE PEOPLE ARE FINDING WAYS TO BETTER THEMSELVES EVEN IF IT MEANS HAVING TO HURT PHYSICALLY. HOW ABOUT STOP WORRYING ABOUT THEIR CULTURE AND HOW THEY RUN THINGS AND TRY FIXING YOUR OWN LIFE TO MAKE IT BETTER.

HEY DONT GET MAD. THESE ARE JUST WORDS. ITS NOT LIKE YOURE BEING WHIPPED OR BEING NAILED ON TO THE CROSS.

Rizalist said...

No Offense taken YO MOMZ. Welcome to philippine commentary. some do agree with you around here you know, and I usually learn a lot from those who disagree. Peace!