Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wasn't One Crucifixion Enough?

[PALM SUNDAY...This is a reprint of Philippine Commentary from Good Friday a few years ago... though the subject seems timeless...]
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.


Jego said...

Setting aside the tourism aspect of it, penitentes, by self-flagellation debase the flesh, showing how little they regard it compared to the spirit. The flesh, as St Paul wrote, is a source of weakness and sin:

For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death... For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. Romans 7:5, 14-20

(Shia muslims and mystics also practice self-immolation.)

Speaking of the core narratives about those events, in a blog post I made a couple of years ago, I tried to look the historical accuracy of the senakulo, particularly that part where the entire Jerusalem is shown as turning their backs on Jesus.

Crucifixions were fairly common in those days, and Romans usually crucified insurgents -- Jewish heroes! The Roman soldiers were out in force for Jesus's crucifixion, not to protect him from the crowd, but to prevent a rebellion. The spectacle of the Jewish populace cheering on as the Romans tortured rebels to the Roman occupation is an historical inaccuracy we have tolerated for so long because of tradition. More likely, the Jewish masses cursed the Romans, albeit under their breath for fear of being tortured themselves. Remember that a week before, Jerusalem welcomed him as the Messiah; the one who they thought would lead them against the Romans. And tradition would have us believe that barely a week later, these same masses who welcomed him would turn against him just like that?

blackshama said...


I think the folk Catholicism you have described does not really show fealty to the Institutional Roman Catholic Church (Church) but is really subversive.

One reason why the hierarchy has been lukewarm in condemning these practices is that it poses little or no threat to the ruling order. It is more profitable to the Church if it pressures a rather complacent theologically and scientifically unsophisticated ruling elite. It is also profitable to the ruling elite to conform.

Folk Catholicism unless organized poses little threat to the ruling establishment. We have to recall that all populist religious movements in our history have been crushed by civil rather than religious authority. This even continued after the Spanish patronato real into the American and Independence periods.

An example is the Iglesia Filipina Independiente which started really as a popular movement though with leaders that had theological training. The IFI posed a threat to the Americans (the civil authority and American Church, Catholic and Protestant) and so was disenfranchised. (The IFI lost its claims to churches where entire Catholic congregations joined the IFI. That the IFI was able to survive lies much in part to its defiance of political Roman Catholicism and its core values of nationalism. (Today the IFI has remained Catholic in its polity and theology even if ordains women to the ministry)

Today popular religious movements within and outside Catholicism raise alarm bells in the Vatican. The El Shaddai is another example. Our Jesuit and Domincan theologians have written much on the phenomenon and our local bishops had no choice but to tolerate Velarde's unorthodox to put it mildly to heretical views.

The story is different with popular evangelical movements. 20years ago the Church went on offensive against them.

In summary,it is more damaging to the Church if it excommunicates or place in interdict Barrio Cacutud. It would rather play politics!

But times are a changing. Who know a popular Catholic movement may even ordain women priests in defiance of the hierarchy. How will our bishops react?

blackshama said...


The theological point you just wrote about is so Augustinian (so much emphasis on the flesh).

DJB, the reason why the Opus Deiers wear those cilices and what have you is because Escriva himself was influenced by Augustine.

And so was Martin Luther!

Jego said...

... and so has, by extension, the whole of Western Christianity. The West views the passion and death as 2 separate events, while the Eastern Christians view it as one event. For the West, it is the death of the Christ that saved us, while for the East, it is his very conception, when the Word became flesh, that saved us.

Jego said...

The West views the passion and death as 2 separate events...

I meant passion and resurrection.

blackshama said...


Yes you are on mark. The Western (Latin) Church is more rationalistic and less mystical. The East has it the other way around. As a result of that kind of theology, The Latin Church HAD to define TRANSUBSTANTIATION. The Eastern Church is loathe to identify at what point of the Mass do the elements become the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eastern Church has no word for that until much later.

But that kind of Latin Church theology is the mother of science and the scientific worldview.

Latin Church theology has the same methods as Science. Science is nothing but the child of Theology. Richard Dawkins has to eat crow!

Jego said...

I agree, blackshama. Which brings us to Galileo and his heliocentric universe. This wasnt new and the theory has been around since Copernicus, and is also espoused by Catholic clerics like Johannes Kepler. However, the geocentric universe was the dominant theory at the time and proved accurate in predicting the movements of the celestial bodies. According to this book:

Galileo was not subjected to the Inquisition because of his discoveries in physics, which were admired rather than disputed by many religious authorities including the Pope, but rather because he persisted in insinuating that the politically powerful Church leaders were blockheads for rejecting Copernicus' heliocentric theory. When forced under the Inquisition to prove the truth of Copernicus' system or shut up, Galileo failed... Page 13.

The Inquisition wanted proof, which Galileo failed to provide. Of course Galileo was later proven to be correct, but the Inquisition's objection to Galileo was on scientific grounds instead of a purely dogmatic one. They were acting like the review committee of a modern scientific journal, trying to determine if Galileo deserves to be 'published'.

MBW said...

Crucifixion time again! Sick, sick!

What an xtraordinary interpretation/expression of Catholic faith...

Amadeo said...

Latin Church theology has the same methods as Science. Science is nothing but the child of Theology. Richard Dawkins has to eat crow!

I agree and Bravo! But Dawkins and his ilk will always find favor with the progressive secularists who are against religion, any religion.

I say also that the folk Catholicism practiced in some parts of the islands is not only subversive, but idolatrous.

blackshama said...

Jego. Kepler was a Lutheran. The Ptolemaic theory could explain planetary motion but was not as parsimonious as the Copernican theory.

A few years back a Philosophy and Math MA student at the Ateneo proved that the Ptolemaic theory would work out as true if you have the right coordinate system to describe it.

Galileo was right on his scientific theory but he ruffled the theologians and philosophers. Nowadays no theologian or philosopher would review the work of a scientist. The heliocentric theory was reviewed on theological and philosophical (epistemological) grounds and not really much on scientific grounds. This is the gist of John Paul II's apology.

" Scripture was made to say something it wasn't meant to say."

With this statement, The Catholic Church has finally recognized that Science is independent of Theology.

Benedict XVI's lieutenants want to turn back the clock though.

Richard Dawkins and his kind want to speed up the clock. Unfortunately Science's methods cannot really trump that of Theology.

Amadeo. Idolatry is a form of subversion of institutional monotheism.

Come to think of it. Some Bishops have instructed their priests not to celebrate Mass with J Lo around. We can consider J Lo a sort of religious revival (folksy?) mediated and led by nuns! (Horrors! A threat to the Patriarchal Church that refuses to even talk about the ordination of women!) J Lo and the nuns have simply become a threat.

This could signal further secularization in our society. Once the power of these bishops in tandem with the Malacanang tenant has been cut, the Catholic Church will simply be just one of the shapers of our society and not the ONLY shaper of our society.

DJB Rizalist said...

You know I really wish that it was only these peasants in Pampanga. But do you know that Editor and Publisher of the Philippine Daily Innuendo (both women) both begin their workday by kissing the feet of a stone statue of Mama Mary? NO joke okay, but it's just pure idolatry and they are SERIOUS about it.

I have nothing against piety, but does it have to be so uhm, overt?

mbw said...

Idolatrous and superstitious!

Typical medieval practice!

Hay naku -- if these so-called "enlightened" women still do that sort of thing in the hope of obtaining grace from God, geez, ain't surprised the whole country is so Medievalistic.

Really quite extraordinarily backward!

blackshama said...

Not only the PDI editors (who kiss icons) but even Gloriana herself. She wipes a hanky on the relics of St Therese. I will have to throw cold water on the secular-Protestant readers here. These practices have warrant in Scripture. Recall that the woman with a flow of blood touched the hem of Christ's robe and was healed. Christ DID NOT reproach the woman unlike the secular-Protestants do to similar people who do!

But true Catholicism doesn't require these acts of faith for salvation. One just has to assent to the Creed. One can disagree with the bishops or the Pope on many matters. In some non Catholic religions, disagreement may incur excommunication or even a fatwa!

That's the good thing about Catholicism.

Anonymous said...

In the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church such practices do not exist--rather they are considered demonic blasphemies. To deliberately harm the body--when Christ-God was pleased to become man for our salvation, is a serious abuse. Human beings are icons of God, made in his image, and Christ suffered for us in the dignity of the divine Godhead. If we would imitate his extreme humility then we should give ourselves to healthy practices of self-denial such as fasting on Wed and Friday, saying Canons, and above all, being under the direction of a spiritual elder. We Orthodox believe in Theosis--that is, the proccess of our human beingness being animated by the life of the Holy Trinity. One of the saints has said: "The goal of the Christian life is the aquisition of The Holy Spirit" The Holy Spirit proceeds from the father and is able to displace our sinful inclinations with the virtues--and these can only be the fruit of The Divine love of which Christ our God is the only mediator. There is nothing that can be added to his saving work whatsoever. Our part is to recieve it in all humility--not in devilish extreme acts that actually make a mockery of the life of the Incarnation---especially his all holy passion. The Roman Communion should renounce the use of the cilice and these other acts of prideful and very false asceticism. The ancients of the Desert, (The Desert Fathers, ex. Antonius of Egypt or Mary of Egypt) found the solitude of being alone with their sins enough of a mortification---and most importantly, not mortification for its sake but for the sake of becoming like the beloved. The Church is not the object of our obedience---rather she is the fellowship whos Holy Tradition helps lead us to Christ, so that he made be made manifest in us, and so that all mankind may benefit from the fruit of his love.