It was Easter weekend. Around the world, millions of Catholics went down on bended knee to thank his exalted beardedness for offering hope, love and, if you’re a guy, a chance to grow long hair without having to justify it.
Every year in San Fernando, a small town in the Philippines, a group of residents do all those things with one, unmistakable, unsubtle addition.
To be sure that people really, really get the message that they believe in Jesus with sugar on top, a small group of Catholics gather a crowd of thousands in their town to broadcast their case.
But rather than go with a persuasive verse and a righteous sermon to drive their point home, these Catholics opt for nails through palms.
Yes, this was a crucifixion (though, if you volunteer to be crucified is it still a crucifixion?) – and while most families might consider a Saturday brunch followed by a trip through a museum or walk in the park as a nice family outing, Rose, her grandparents, mum, sister and I decided that watching people torture themselves would do just fine.
We arrived way too early, partly from hearing rumours that it started at 10 in the morning, plus because Rose’s grandmother finds sleep boring.
Already, the early opening acts had begun the show with signs of penitence, as they lay down on the road, got up to move three feet, then lay down again.
I have to warn you – if you find this odd, and a little concerning – it gets much worse and more graphic. If you have a ripe imagination, you may want to avoid the rest of this post.
After making it to the main site where the crucifixion would take place, three crosses were ready and waiting with the humble addition of fifty vendor tents selling food and paraphernalia, the local police, municipal police, the army, SWAT team and an area for VIPs to sit in comfort under a tarp.
Quite simply, we were attending a rock concert. More specifically, it reminded me of a version of the Jim Rose Sideshow Circus from Lollapalooza of days gone by.
To confirm our observation, the members of the second opening act began to trickle in to the site.
Seeing them from the front, I didn’t think much of them, though I did find it a bit unsettling that they covered their faces, which, I thought, gave them the uniformity of an army.
As they walked, they were flagellating themselves with a wooden instrument that looked a little like a wind chime, and could be yours, on site, for a bargain of 200 pesos (Yes. Vendors were selling them, in case you too wanted to beat yourself up).
Now, they turned around, and I immediately remembered why we’d come here – because it seemed unbelievable that people would do this to themselves (WARNING: DON’T LOOK DOWN AT THE PHOTO IF YOU’RE EASILY TURNED OFF).
Yep, that’s real blood. And, I’m sorry again to get graphic, but I think it’s worth an explanation.
On first glance I thought that all that blood was from multiple beatings to his back, which broke his skin all over, causing him to bleed.
However, the way these guys do it is that someone scores them on the back with small bits of broken glass, that makes scratches in their skin. They then hit those scratches with their wooden sticks, which creates a fountain of blood that drips down their back, giving a dramatic appearance that suggests they have severe wounds all over.
This may be a small point and I realize I’m splitting hairs for an already brutal scenario. Yes, they are bleeding for real. And yes it’s undoubtedly painful. But when you compare a bloodied back from self-flagellating in a film like: The Passion of the Christ – this version, though awful in its own way, is at least, a lot milder.
As more and more self-flagellators made their way into the site, the sounds of their sticks hitting their backs created a distinct, clacking noise – as if, as a troupe, they were horses coming down the road. So, I dubbed them “clackers”. Inventive, I know. Thanks very much.
However, the clackers weren’t the only unsettling element to the day. The heat was, once again, tyrannical. It’s the kind of heat that seems belittled by a mere temperature reading. Much like the self-imposed suffering around us, it was omnipresent, even finding shade didn’t save you from the convection of heat swirls, which seemed to come at you from every direction.
Here’s a simple anecdote of how hot the sun was. I stepped into an area of shade then after a minute felt like my toe was being dipped in hot wax. I looked down to see what was happening and noticed that I’d inadvertently left my toe in the sun for one minute. Merciless.
Of course, to the clackers and the other penitents, the heat was probably a welcome addition, making their suffering even better.
Though, I did spot one clacker who, walking barefoot along the molten hot asphalt, would lift his feet up and down to offer respite from the heat, which given that he was beating himself bloody, seemed a bit of a funny concession.
While Rose’s family and I sought shade, we were wilting and one by one began to fall asleep as much from the heat as finally conceding, and getting out of bed, to a duet of a rooster’s cackle and a dog’s incessant barking, at 4am earlier that morning.
We decided to find our way out of the microwave, which when you add the amount of bloodied backs walking around, had the look of what happens when you put spaghetti sauce on high without putting something on to cover it up.
But we soon realized there was another problem. Actually a few problems.
There was a single road out that was probably the size of a single lane on a North American highway, and coming down it was an army of clackers followed by the cause celebre himself, Jesus, with his cross and entourage.
As we got by a parade of one set of clackers, I looked down and realized my shoes had been splashed with blood droplets. Rose’s sister also noticed a spot on her shirt, as well as Rose’s mum’s husband. Within three feet, on a tiny road, we were easy targets for a blood bombing. Nevertheless, we were committed and had to push ahead.
Two things we had in our favour were umbrellas – which made a good shield, and frequent alleys that came off the main road, which we could slip down if the clackers got too close.
We dodged and weaved our way down through the street fairly successfully, which increasingly resembled scenes from Kurtz’s compound in Apocalypse Now: laughing people, blood flying everywhere, people taking photos, and cans of Coke for sale on the side of the road.
Then, for more weird, this guy showed up:
While everyone watched, the roads got more and more congested. Soon after there was a bottleneck as people like us were trying to move past, along with the bloodied clackers who now found themselves wedged in to the crowd. We all sucked in our stomach as they passed us within a few inches, and held our breath from the smell of their dried blood.
Now worried we would be smeared with clackers blood as they pushed by, I spotted an alley next to us as I saw more bloodied bodies moving our way, and we shoved ourselves into the alley safely, umbrellas out in case their was a chance of a blood shower.
Luckily we picked a good alley. We found a store selling cold drinks, so kicked back, watched the show go by – then piled four onto a tricycle and zoomed our way around the stragglers behind the procession, including a few clackers, before finding solace and air conditioning in San Fernando’s town square.
Although we missed his nailing, by day’s end – JESUS CHRIST! – I think we all felt his pain.