MANILA, Philippines --- Braving the scorching heat, thousands of Christian faithful on Friday flocked to three sites in the City of San Fernando, Pampanga, to witness the annual re-enactment of Christ crucifixion in observance of Good Friday.
Nearly 50,000 foreign and local devotees gathered at the sites where Christ's crucifixion was re-enacted by dozens of penitents, led by Ben Enaje, who played the role of Christ for the 27th time.
Enaje, a carpenter and a resident of San Pedro Cutud, was nailed to a wooden cross late yesterday afternoon using two-inch stainless steel nails that have been soaked in alcohol to prevent infection.
He had earlier said that being nailed to a cross is his way of "thanking God for surviving a fall while at work" several years ago.
Ramil Lazaro, a dishwasher, wheeler, and pedicab driver, also got his share of stainless steel nails along with five penitents in the same barangay. He is expected to the take the role of Christ next year, replacing Enaje
Eight more were nailed to crosses, three in Santa Lucia and five in and San Juan, according to councilor Jimmy Lazatin. All the penitents were taken down after being "cleansed" of their sins.
Lazaro told Manila Bulletin, "I am doing this because I have a lot of blessings to thank the Lord for. Despite some financial constraints, I realized that my family never starves and I have always been at the prime of my health."
A father to two boys and two girls, Lazaro said his vow to be nailed to a cross on Good Fridays is God's call for him to look over the people.
He said he continues to pray for peace for mankind.
Apart from being nailed to a cross, other penitents carry the wooden cross or whipped themselves using bamboo sticks tied to a rope. One of them, Lenie dela Cruz, a second year HRM student from Holy Angel University in Angeles City who volunteered for the first time to carry the wooden cross going to Cutud as part of her vow to serve God.
"I am doing this to get closer to God," was Dela Cruz's brief answer to this reporter's query of her mission.
Dela Cruz is the oldest of four siblings. She has stopped schooling since 2010 due to economic constraints.
The re-enactment of Christ's crucifixion is performed every year where the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) was originally staged in 1955 and is now on its 50th year. It is constantly held in Angeles City and Sto. Tomas in Pampanga, and in Bulacan, Lazatin said.
"I am used to it already," said Alex Laranang, 58, who was nailed up for the 14th time.
Laranang, a short, sunburnt man who sells baked buns to bus passengers, said: "It is just like a needle going through my hand. After two days, I am ready to go back to work again."
So far, he told AFP, his suffering has been rewarded as his wife and children enjoy good health and he continues to make a good living
"I am doing this for my family, so that no one will get sick and that my livelihood will continue. I am just a poor man. But I don't ask God to make me rich," he said.
He and the three other men grimaced as the nails were pounded into their hands, but they fixed their eyes on the sky and appeared to be in a trance as they each hung on the cross for up to 10 minutes.
After they were taken down, the men hobbled off to a medical tent as Western tourists snapped pictures.
The mock crucifixions have been going on for decades despite official disapproval from the Philippines' Catholic bishops.
"The bishops have been saying for a long time they disapprove of this. But people make such vows. They sacrifice themselves for others," said Father Francis Lucas, executive director of the Philippine bishops' media office.
"We have so many crosses to bear in life. We don't need to bear a real one," he told AFP.
Meanwhile, Governor Lilia "Nanay" G. Pineda had earlier enjoined "cabalens" to include in their prayers this Lenten season the conduct of a peaceful and orderly election.
Pineda expressed concern amid reports that Pampanga is among 15 provinces under the watch list order of the Commission on Election (Comelec).
"This season, let us not forget to pray for peace for the upcoming election. Let us remain focused and dedicated in the performance of our duties as public servants," the governor said.
The Catholic faithful observe Black or Holy Saturday, the last day of the Holy Week, with a mixture of mourning and joy with the observance of the Day of the Entombed Christ during the day and the Easter Vigil in the evening, thus the term Sabado de Gloria (Saturday of Glory) or Easter Eve.
No masses will be held in all Catholic churches today, instead, the faithful are encouraged to venerate the image of the Santo Sepulcro (Christ lying in the tomb) as well as to reflect on the Seven Sorrows (Dolors) of Mary, the Prophecy of Simeon in the Temple, the Flight into Egypt, the Disappearance of the Child Jesus in the Temple, the Carrying of the Cross on Mount Calvary, the Crucifixion, the Taking Down from the Cross, and the Burial of Jesus. Meditations and reflections are focused on the Passion and death of Christ, and His descent into hell before His glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday. (With reports from AFP and Christina I. Hermoso)