Good Friday is commemorated to the extreme in San Fernando, Pampanga
The blood whipped through the air lightly spraying my arms and clothes with red sticky flecks. The crowd turned their backs as they passed by, three men, heads covered wearing 'crowns' of leaves while beating their own flesh with bamboo sticks. A whip for each step. It was Good Friday 2019 in the Philippines and these were the Flagellants, just one part of the day's gruesome proceedings. The blood I later discovered was fake, but their pain and devout religious belief was very real.
I had joined the hundreds of others who descend on San Pedro Cutud every Good Friday to watch an epic re-enactment of Jesus' Passion and eventual crucifixion. The Philippines is the only country in the world where this controversial tradition takes place (the Catholic church in the country strongly discourages the practice). It was utterly enthralling. I arrived into a tiny back street just as Jesus, played by local man Ruben Enaje, was led by 'Roman soldiers' to the site of his trial and condemnation. Dressed in floor length white robes and with long, flowing hair, Ruben very much looked the part. He held a stoic expression as he was taken by a rope held around his wrist to receive his fate (not that there would ever be a question of what would happen later). It was chaos - men, women and children of all ages jostled for position, phones held aloft snapping pictures and necks craned just trying to get a glimpse of the action. The town's commitment to the theatrics of the story was fantastic - Roman soldiers wearing homemade gold breastplates and armour carried huge wooden spears and held back the crowd, while the members of the 'court' recited their lines onstage via tiny hidden microphones. It was outdoor theatre with an extreme twist.
The 'Passion', or the long tortured walk Jesus is believed to have endured on the way to his death may be the storyline, but being a part of that crowd felt like being a part of San Pedro Cutud's story. This Easter tradition has taken place here since the 1950's and it was the reason people from all over the world came to visit an otherwise unremarkable town. Ruben's Jesus was now labouring under a huge wooden cross and we followed him and his persecutors through town, us all feeling somewhat crucified ourselves under the midday sun. It felt like a carnival and not the sombre atmosphere I was expecting. People stood outside houses and shops watching us pass. One pitying woman fanned people using her scarf. Now and again the procession would stop and another scene would take place, microphones would be turned on and the crowd would quiet as another part of the story came to life. A woman playing Mary Magdalene in a bright blue cloak wailed and pleaded for mercy. I noticed a few 'soldiers' stop to chat and laugh with friends as they went, which broke the tension somewhat. I got the feeling a lot of them had done this for years and maybe they had. It was Ruben Enaje's 33rd time in the role of Jesus. He has been crucified, willingly, 33 times now. That's quite something.
We finally arrived at the crucifixion site after a couple of hours and that's when the full impact of what was about to happen really hit. Up on a makeshift hill stood three wooden crosses (Jesus is crucified along with two other convicts, or 'penitents'). It looked truly medieval and bizarre. The crosses were surrounded by stalls selling food and drinks and the area was thronging with people and press waiting for the main event. Everything suddenly felt very Life of Brian. I landed a spot just behind the crosses and watched as Ruben received his crown of thorns and the soldiers laid him down on the cross. It was hard to believe anyone could do this willingly, but willing he was. Ruben believes that God saved his life after he fell from scaffolding back in the 1980s, and his annual crucification is his own way of giving thanks. It was painful to watch him all day knowing what was coming, but it was also strangely hypnotic. I felt almost guilty about how fascinating I found the whole spectacle.
There were a few gasps and cries from the crowd as the 4 inch nails were hammered into his hands and feet. Then the crosses were raised, Jesus in the middle dressed in a long white cloth and his two fellow convicts either side. They all endured the heat of the sun and incredible pain for about 5 minutes before they were taken down and immediately taken to the medical tent to have wounds tended to. A dash of welcome inauthenticity.
And so it was over - and what a unique and impactful experience it was. It isn't very often we're confronted with the sort of religious fervour and devotion as is seen in San Pedro Cutud every Easter, but when we are, it can be intoxicating. Or maybe that's just me. This is one of the most remarkable experiences you can have in the Philippines. If your stomach is strong enough, make the pilgrimage.
How to do it
When and where: Good Friday, San Pedro Cutud which is around an hour on the bus north from Manila. The official procession starts around noon but crowds start gathering from as early as 9am.
Getting to San Pedro Cutud: Take a bus from Cubao terminal in Manila to San Fernando, Pampanga (make sure it's definitely going to Pampanga province, there is more than one San Fernando!). They depart roughly every 30 minutes, tickets cost less than £5, the journey is around one hour. Let the driver know you're getting off at SM Mall in San Fernando, then from there take a tricycle to San Pedro Cutud.
VIP access: You can purchase a 'VIP' ticket which allows entry into a small tented area very close to the crucifixion site, meaning great pictures. Head to the barangay town hall when you arrive to buy them.
Tip: If you opt for the VIP option you'll miss the passion play, which is basically the majority of the day. You can still easily see the crucifixion from outside the VIP area so you won't miss out.