Devout Roman Catholic Ruben Enaje donned a crown of thorns as he prepared to put himself through the agonizing ordeal of being nailed to a cross -- for the 22nd time.
The 47-year-old decorator is one of 19 men in this northern Philippines village who will undergo the gruesome Easter crucifixion ritual, originally a form of penance by devotees wanting to thank God for answering their prayers.
On the one occasion he skipped it eight years ago, he said, he was struck down with stomach ulcers and his wife was taken ill.
"It is painful and difficult. But I will continue doing this for as long as I can. This is my pledge to God," the father of four said as he prepared his ceremonial garb at his modest wooden home.
Thousands of tourists braved the tropical heat yesterday to flock to this poor farming community about an hour's drive north of the capital Manila to witness the religious rites.
The reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is part of a bloody annual spectacle that shocks outsiders in this devoutly Roman Catholic nation.
Villagers have put up three wooden crosses on a barren hill, where Enaje and the 18 others are to be crucified later in the day.
Metal nails will be driven into their palms as they lay spread-eagled over the cross, which will be raised briefly and then taken down again for the nails to be pulled out.
Hours ahead of the ceremony, scores of other local men whipped themselves bloody with strips of bamboo attached to strings to atone for their sins.
The dominant Roman Catholic Church frowns on these extreme practices.
"The Church does not recommend it because the Church is against self-flagellation," said Father Norman Vitug, the local parish priest.
"Of course when we express our faith to the Lord the Church does not want us to hurt ourselves for us to experience the Love of God," he said.
"But we cannot question somebody's faith. It's just an expression of their faith. We do not lead their lives so we do not know what happens to them while experiencing that, so we might as well respect it," the priest said.
On Wednesday, Archbishop Paciano Aniceto of San Fernando city in Pampanga Province urged devotees not to turn Holy Week into a "circus," calling flagellation and crucifixion rites "popular piety."
"There are penitents who personally see me explaining their devotion and I usually tell them not to do it for show," Aniceto said in a statement posted on the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines' Web site.
On Thursday, Health Secretary Francisco Duque advised penitents to get tetanus shots and sterilize nails used in the crucifixions to avoid infections.
"Our ERs are always open for them to be taken cared of," he said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos crammed into bus depots and snarled traffic on Thursday as the nation began a began a four-day Easter holiday.
In preparation for the mass movement of people, police have put a 120,000-strong force on nationwide alert to beef up security and police visibility during the holiday.
Police and military personnel were also being deployed to bus terminals to assist passengers and to keep watch for criminals and terrorists.
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