“Mamatay hiya?” Nine year-old Joanne-May looked up at me, cautiously, but without fear. He will die?
“Oo. mamatay hiya,” I nodded. Yes. He will die.
We two stood at the top of Calvary Hill, waiting for Jesus to be crucified.
Every year on Good Friday, Filipinos reenact the death of Jesus. In some cities there are crucifixion plays of the stations of the cross. In others men walk the streets flagellating themselves with whips, their backs a bloody mess by the end. In a few places, people volunteer to be crucified: they are nailed through their hands to a cross, raised up to feel what Jesus felt, then let back down and tended to.
On my first Good Friday as a Peace Corps volunteer, I’d walked smack dab into the Tacloban City crucifixion parade. A couple hundred people proceeding through deserted streets. At the front were a cluster of men dressed in red capes with white crosses and red cardboard helmets. Roman soldiers. In the middle of the cluster, leashed to a rope and dragging a cross, Jesus.
I walked and watched. A Roman soldier yelled curses. Another took his whip and flogged the King of the Jews, the blows coming with real force. After a time, a soldier jumped in the air and kicked Jesus, who fell to his knees. The soldiers manhandled him back onto his feet and Jesus dragged on through the streets of Tacloban.
Behind him were two more Jesuses enduring the same treatment at the hands of more Romans. I’d heard about the reenactments. For some reason I’d imagined the people that volunteered would be the very pious. These men did not look pious. Many of them had tattoos. One had a mohawk.
My imagination ran. I wondered if participation was fully voluntary or if the men who did this were perhaps convicts, cajoled by priests to expunge their guilt by going through this ordeal. But then, what does pious look like?
“Excuse me, are you a tourist?” A well dressed man in the crowd extended his hand. Around his neck was a big camera.
“Diri. Naukoy ako dinhi ha Tacloban,” I said, trying my best not to seem like a gawking tourist. “Magturutdo ako ha Eastern Visayas State University.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, you are a foreigner. You are seeing this,” his hand waved at the parade. “Do you have any objection?” In his other hand I saw a notepad.
“No. I have no objection.” I watched him transcribe my words. “This just shows the…the dedication…and piety…of the Filipino people for…for their religion. All over the world people do things to show penance to God, so I do not judge this.”
“Okay. Thank you.” The journalist extended his hand again. I couldn’t tell whether my response pleased or disappointed him.
We walked on, down Imelda Avenue and through the Quarry District to the base of Calvary Hill. From time to time the flagellants–fifteen or so in total–would stop, bend down on one knee, and assistants would take razors and cut small slits along their shoulders to facilitate bleeding.
Somewhere up the mountain, I found Joanne-May. Or rather, she found me, the lone Amerikano. We chatted in Waray-Waray as we climbed. I asked her how old she was. Nine. Where she lived. Back there. Where her parents were. At home.
“Papa Jesus?” she said, pointing to the man dragging the cross.
“Oo. Papa Jesus.”
This Papa Jesus would not be crucified that day. But I only realized he wouldn’t when he started descending the mountain. As I waited in unsure anticipation at the top of the mountain, all I could think of was this nine year-old girl, Joanne-May, watching Jesus get nailed to a cross.
I’ll be honest. Part of me wanted to see it, see the man crucified. But when that man descended that mountain in the hot afternoon, hands intact, no, I had no objection.