Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday - Part 1

(note: If you haven't already done so - I recommend you read Holy Thursday first, by way of background).

Taking of Christ by Caravaggio

It was twelve o’clock noon in Manila on an unbearably hot Good Friday. The mourning bells of the dozens of Churches and Cathedrals throughout the city began slowly tolling in agony. Twelve times.

In Santol Mansion, the six children; Lucrezia, Zita, Heinzie, Dolly, Jaime and Freckie,followed by their respective amahs, struck a bronze gong in the gardens of Santol with a heavy, ebony doy doy (hammer). Twelve times.

Doña Esperanza and the clan were seated on the first six rows of the auditorium of Ateneo University, the Jesuit University founded in the early part of the 17th century. Father James Reuter, a young American Jesuit orator, was going to deliver the sermon on the Seven Last Words of Jesus.

Uncle Matt was the only one of the clan who had stayed behind to keep the children and the amahs company. All the domestic staff was attending the “Last Words” in Quiapo Cathedral near Chinatown. The priests spoke not only Tagalog but other dialects such as Ilocano, Ilongo and Cebuano. There was a splendid Cathedral in Chinatown . The learned Jesuits officiated at all the religious services because they spoke not only Mandarin, which few Huas Chiao – Overseas Chinese knew and understood. They were fluent in Shanghainese,Cantonese, Fujianese, and Hakka.

The children and their amahs tarried in the gardens of Santol Mansion. N.B. It continued after the short explanation of the Crucifixion.



The Crucifixion of Jesus, or Yeshua in Aramaic, is recorded in all four gospels of the New Testaments – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

THE Crucifixion is the most agonizing way to die by the hand of another. A human being is tied or nailed to a cross or a stake.

The Persians, with their great civilization and culture, first employed the practice of Crucifixion on their hardened criminals, their conquered peoples. The Egyptians learned it from the Persians. The Carthaginians frequently resorted to Crucifixion for their condemned. It is logical to presume that the Carthaginians, a Semitic people had exposed Crucifixion to the Proto-Israelites.

Alexander the Great brought this brutal way of death to the Mediterranean- the West. He was in awe of many Eastern practices. As is inevitable with us humans, he passed on the sublime along with the malevolent.

The Romans had obliterated Carthage. They absorbed the best and the most foul from all the people they conquered and/or wiped out.

The Persians, Babylonians, and the Proto-Israelites also employed crucifixion as the most severe form of execution.

Crucifixion was therefore not confined to the Romans. Indeed, the Roman way was beheading or the use of exotic poisons.

But, the Romans - with their cohesive yet heterogeneous Empire, their Senate, their deep love of Law and Justice, Order (as in order in the Cosmos), engineering, communications, their ideas on the Sovereign State - perfected crucifixion as a means of capital punishment.

Since they happened to be efficient rulers they had permanent stakes plunged into the ground in their designated places of execution. The victim or the condemned carried the crossbar on his back to the stake. They usually weighed between fifty to seventy five pounds. Sometimes the victim was nailed to the crossbar or he was tied to it with rope, which left searing rope burns on his wrists and legs. The crossbar and victim were hoisted into place. One way was to raise the crossbar to fit inside a notch on top of the stake so that the letter T was formed. Another method was to place the cross beam a few feet below the top, creating a cross. The imagination of humanity to kill their fellow beings, then as now knew no bounds. Where there was a scarcity of wood, the condemned was nailed or tied to a single stake in the ground.

A soldier walked in from of the condemned person, carrying a small wooden placard in which was written the crime he had committed. This sign was then nailed to the cross above the head of the condemned.

In the case of Jesus, nails eight inches long were pounded through the wrists (ulna), between the radial (elbow) and the ulna. The nails never went through the palms. The nails would have torn the palms away as they could not hold all the weight of the body.

Out greatest artists did not know this or chose to ignore it with customary artistic license. Leonardo (da Vinci) possessed an intimate knowledge of anatomy because he dissected and studied corpses relentlessly. A crucifixion by Leonardo does not exist or did not survive the upheavals of time. As far as I am concerned only two painters portrayed the Passion passionately and vividly. One is Mantegna, who shows the dead figure of Jesus sculpted in such a way that one would swear it is a fresh corpse. The other is none other than Caravaggio. He portrayed religious themes more realistically with his interplay of light and darkness.

The flagellation of Christ by Caravaggio

Some scholars and forensic experts argue that it may have been possible to plunge the nails through the wrists if the victim had a small stand for his posterior to rest upon.

I think that may have been the case when thousands of early Christians died on crosses in the Coliseum in Rome and in others similar to it throughout the Empire. Nero, Trajan and Diocletian harbored no mercy towards the believers of Jesus. Indeed, every catastrophe was blamed on them.


The children and their amahs tarried in the garden, fascinated by the reverberations of the gong. It seemed to bounce off their majestic acacia, avocado, and mango trees. It was Freckie who broke the spell.

“I’ll race you all back to the house,” exclaimed Freckie who was a swimmer and a runner.

Heinzie, a bit plump, and Jaime, wiry and thin, refused to lose face. “Okay,” they replied reluctantly.

“I’ll join you boys,” cried out Dolly, not wanting to be left out.

Lucrezia and Zita exchanged “here-we-go-again” looks. “We’re walking back. It’s too hot for contests,” replied Lucrezia.

“I’m with her,” assented Zita.

Freckie crossed and uncrossed his eyes. “Why do you always have to ruin everything?” he asked, addressing Lucrezia directly.

She ignored his remark and tried to think of Jesus.

Zita lashed out, “You’re my brother but you’re such a pain.”

Ah Wei became the referee. “No bad words on Good Friday, eh? They who wants to run, run. They who likes to walk, walk.” She put her arm around Lucrezia’s waist, turned back to reassure Ah Tat, Zita’s amah, who followed her example.

“Hurry, children,” Uncle Matt called out from the veranda as they began to walk up the grand, circular, marble staircase of Santol Mansion. “The broadcast will begin in a few seconds,” said Uncle Matt, adjusting the dials of the Philips radio. “For the first time, we are broadcasting the Agony of Jesus live. In a few seconds, we’ll be right there at the Ateneo Auditorium.”

Uncle Matt ran the radio stations and television channel owned by the Nieto Ortigas clan in the Philippines.

They waited in silence, not moving. Lucrezia clutched her white handkerchief tightly. Then, out of the Philips radio came the familiar, low, caressing voice of Uncle Matt.

“It was pre-recorded,” he told them. The announcement was in English, more widely spoken than the national language, Tagalog, or Spanish, which was known only to the elite or the intellectuals (i.e., the oligarchy).

“I wonder if the children will last three hours?” pondered Uncle Matt. He wasn’t concerned. Their amahs would insist they take the siesta if they noticed any sign of restlessness or sleepiness.

“The Seven Last Words of Jesus. The First Word from the Gospel of Saint Luke. Jesus says, ‘Father, forgive them. They know not what they do,” boomed out Father Reuters voice.

Father Reuters voice was made for broadcasting. He seduced the microphone. His voice was a rich baritone, full of colors. He’d raise his voice, then it would shake, then they had to strain when he whispered.

The Jesuit took all his listeners to Jerusalem on that torrid Good Friday so long ago, to Golgotha, Aramaic for “the skull.” This is where the Romans crucified the condemned. Jesus was nailed to the cross as it lay on the ground. Two thieves - one on his right, one on his left - were also being prepared for crucifixion.

“Let us ask ourselves: do we know what we are doing? Do the leaders of the world in politics, finance, industry, art and culture know? Do we in the church know?” thundered Father James Reuter.

The narra (mahogany) ceiling fans were whirling at their maximum speed, the volume of the radio was pumped up. Good Friday in Manila was scorching. Ninety percent humidity and not a hint of cross currents. Heaps of mangoes, tiny yellow bananas and huge, sweet, green bananas sat on a wicker basket on the side table. There was plenty of cool water and iced calamansi juice to drink. No one moved. They listened in rapt attention.

Lucrezia thought, “I don’t always know what I’m doing.”

Uncle Matt said loudly, “Our autocratic Pope (Pius XII) won’t like that one bit. That might be a barb aimed at him too. We don’t know what we are doing, we just think we do.”

“Are you not the Messiah?” mocked one of the criminals on the cross beside Jesus. The other thief berated him. ”Don’t you fear God? Both of us are guilty. We deserve to die on the cross. But he is innocent,” And then he addressed Jesus. “Remember me Yeshua, when you come as King.”

Over the airwaves, the listening audience, which, numbered in the millions, sat spellbound by Father Reuter’s delivery.

“Yeshua?” asked the children.

“Yes, that was Jesus’ name in Aramaic, the language spoken throughout Palestine, Judea and Syria at that time,” explained Matt.

Father Reuter recites Jesus’ reply in a cracked voice. ”Today, you will be with me in Paradise", from the Gospel of Saint Luke.

“The second death word of Jesus is about acceptance, forgiveness and affirmation in Jesus.”

“My belief in Jesus will inspire me to be a good person so that when I die, I shall also be in Paradise. I still don’t understand why the terrorists did not kill me four years ago in Montalban. I remember Uncle Ben yelling ’’No Victor!” I heard the blast of the gun, and moaning. And then Victor squatted right beside me and stared into my shocked eyes long and hard. I never told anyone that. He massacred all forty-one men, women and children. He only left Uncle Ben and me. He deliberately shot off one leg and one arm of Uncle Ben. What cruelty. Why? Did Jesus in some way penetrate his hard heart? I am not sure,’’ mused Lucrezia.

“I must say this,” began Father Reuter.” The women close to Jesus showed no fear, unlike some of his disciples, apostles and friends. The people typified all oppressed beings through the ages. Why do you think I am using the word oppressed? Because they were so. First by their own harsh Talmudic Judaic Rabbis and of course by the merciless Pontius Pilate.

“So, I repeat, the people were terrified and crushed except when they taunted and lashed out at Jesus. The Apostle John tells us that Maryam, Jesus’ mother Mary, her sister wife of Clopas, Mary of Magdala also known as Mary Magdalene and John himself, were standing by Jesus’ cross. John was probably a cousin of Jesus. He may have been his youngest disciple at the time of the crucifixion. We know from several accounts that Jesus loved him the most.”

“They wept in silent horror and disbelief. Jesus addressed his Mother. “Woman, behold your son.” And then to John who is the Narrator of this Gospel he said,” Behold your Mother.”

“These words are full of passion and love. Listen carefully. Jesus is saying that all women are the mothers of all the children of the earth. Then as now. Semitic cultures - Arab and Jews alike, for they are brothers - looked after their own people in times of tragedy, regardless of blood ties. In a way, they are all born of Woman and therefore sons and daughters. Even as Jesus lay dying an excruciating death, he was thinking of his loved ones.

Lucrezia was struck by something Father Reuter had left out. “Jesus referred only to mothers and sons. Why did he leave out Mary Magdalene and his aunt? That is strange.”

She recalled the words of Great-Uncle Jaime Pardo de Tavera, an influential and rich Sephardic Jew who was linked to the Nieto Ortigas clan as a brother in all but blood.” Both Jews and Arabs are in reality matrilineal societies. The women are more powerful than the men will ever acknowledge.”

Father Reuter continued. ”Darkness covered the land at the ninth hour. From Jesus’ lips a lament pierced the heavens. Eloi! Eloi! Lama Sabachtani? My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me? This is from the Gospel of Saint Mark. Father Reuter paused and then asked the millions listening “ Is this a cry of desperation? Yes!” he cried out.

Lucrezia’s vision was blurred from her tears. “Why was he desperate? Was he asking God if humanity was worth dying for?”

Amah Ah Wei was weeping quietly. Heinzie, who adored Lucrezia but had lost his eldest brother Bubi a couple of years ago, begun to cry. Soon, all the amahs were drying their cheeks and blowing their noses. Matt could not contain himself and covered his eyes with a fine linen handkerchief.

The listeners heard Father Reuter whisper hoarsely, "I thirst, I thirst.”

“To have a proper impression of the state Jesus was in, I am going to ask you to close your eyes and imagine what I am about to tell you,” said Father Reuter with ardent eloquence. The soldiers of Caiphas, the High Priest entered the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest him. They did not know who he was. He was identified by an affectionate kiss given him by Judas, his right hand man. After the shock of this betrayal, he was roughly led away by the soldiers and brought before the Sanhedrim. It was a council composed of Pharisees and Sadducees. The very rabbis he had relentlessly attacked for their corruption, greed and violence. When Jesus questioned Caiphas, the High Priest, a soldier brutally struck Jesus in the head.

“The High Priest has not given you permission to speak, much less query him.”

His captors blindfolded him and punched him in the face repeatedly. With his eyes covered, Jesus could not see and instinctively roll with the punches. The blows would have been that much more deadly. His face was unrecognizable. Like ground meat. Wait! His torture was just beginning.”

“His clothes torn and ripped off his body; Jesus was naked. What better way to humiliate a man than to show him naked before a body of his enemies?”

The faithful listening to Father Reuter seemed paralyzed. They had never stopped to think what the Passion of Christ was all about. After 11 painful years of denial, Filipinos had to confront the holocaust they had survived during the War through the agony of Christ the Savior.

Father Reuter did not mince words. He was not the sort of priest who would do that. He wanted the faithful to realize the suffering Jesus had undergone to save all of Humanity. Nothing any human being suffered would ever compare with the ordeals of Jesus. That is what he wanted them to realize. They needed to do that to move on. The bloodletting in the Orient never stopped. After the war in the Pacific, there was Korea. It had ended with an angry peace, a sort of truce with no clear Victor. Now Vietnam was in the throes of once again throwing off its foreign Masters. The Japanese had been driven off, then the French. Now the Americans had come by the thousands as advisors. The People in the Philippines did not wish to confront these realities. Theirs had been so overwhelming. He cleared his throat as quietly as possible and continued.

“Then the scourging initiated. A soldier used a flagrum, a whip made of leather thongs imbedded with sharp metals and glass fragments. Small, heavy metal balls sewn into the end of each thong ensured maximum piercing and carving out of flesh, bit by agonizing bit. The flagrum was brought down with fiendish fury against the back of Jesus. Thirty-nine lashes was the number of mercy according to Judaic Laws. The flagrum tore off his skin, pierced his tendons and muscles. Perhaps they even exposed his spinal column. Jesus’ back was a mass of mutilated flesh. He was in unbearable pain, flitting in and out of consciousness due to loss of blood and bodily fluids. Yet, he did not ask for water.”

“A robe of rough linen was brusquely placed on his butchered body. A crown of thorns was crushed with great force on his head.”

Father Reuter stopped to ask the faithful abruptly. ”Do you know what happens when that many thorns are inside your head?”

There was only a reverential and awesome silence from the faithful.

“I’ll tell you. The thorns penetrated his scalp and skull and ripped at the skin. Slivers of scalp and hair mixed with the thorns. Heavy hemorrhaging followed, along with yet more excruciating pain. Jesus was covered with spittle from his torturers who knelt before him, mocking and laughing and yelling’ Hail, King of the Judaics.”

“The sight of this young, dying man covered in blood, saliva and gore, who bore all this with dignity and acceptance, enraged his torturers even more. What did they do? He was senseless yet they beat him again and again.”

“I thirst,” rasped Jesus, as the Apostle John tells us. A Roman soldier offered him some wine; it was probably vinegar, which had been doused on a cloth wrapped around a sharp end of a lance. Jesus refused it. I will say it again. Jesus refused the assistance, as he lay on the cross. Was it because he refused to lighten his agony? Did he thirst for water? Perhaps he meant compassion? Love? Tolerance?

Consumatum Est. It is finished,” he whispered. His loved ones barely heard him. John the Apostle informs us.

This reminded Lucrezia that she longed for water for her dry throat. “Wait. Don’t be soft on yourself. Wait a few more minutes. Are you feeling faint? No, then wait!” she scolded herself.

“Remember,” pronounced Father Reuter. “Jesus was already dying when he was led away for crucifixion. That is why he could not carry his own cross. That is why he fell down three times. That is why a strong man, a stranger from Cyrene named Simon was ordered by the Roman centurion to carry the cross for Jesus.”

Father Reuter said something, which brought chills to all the millions of faithful. “We Jesuits are familiar with the physical aspects of crucifixion. Not only as medical doctors, scientists and biblical scholars. Many of us together with thousands of Japanese Catholics were crucified in Japan in the 16th century. In North America, Jesuits were once again nailed to the cross in the 17th and 18th centuries.’

‘Now listen carefully. Do you know what happened when those eight-inch long nails were hammered into his wrists? The median nerves are severed, producing a burning pain and inevitable paralysis in the hands. Once Jesus was lifted to the cross, his feet were nailed to the beam, which sank I the ground. In order to do this properly, his killers bent his knees and raised his feet so that they could lie flat against the stake. When a body hung this way, the force of gravity dragged the weight of the body down. As a result, both shoulders and elbows were dislocated. They popped out of their joints, ripping all his tendons and ligaments.”

“Oh! This is horrible. I can’t bear this,” cried out Lucrezia.

Her cousins agreed, except Freckie who called out ”You are all nothing but silly ninnies”

“Silence!” ordered Matt, who was visibly touched himself by Father Reuter’s realistic portrayal of the Agony of Jesus on the Cross.

“Freckie, I am going to ask you to go to your room unless you apologize to us.”
“Sorry,” said a chastised looking boy of thirteen.

“Those of you here in this auditorium who came expecting a sermon on the Seven Last Words of Jesus may be disappointed by my unsparing description instead of his suffering. You may leave. I will understand,” explained Father Reuter.

For a full minute, the microphone was silent.

“No one will dare to leave this auditorium. They fear the comments of their peers and their families more than the wrath of God. Of such stuff are we humans made of,” pondered Dona Esperanza with sadness and a little bitterness in her heart.

“You are all staying until Jesus breathes his last. Whatever prompted you to remain in your seats, I am grateful to God. Those of you listening in may leave the room or turn off the radio.”

No one did. On that portentous Good Friday of 1957, the faithful got a clear idea at last about the acute Passion of their Savior, Jesus Christ.

“I have not minced any words so let us go on the same way,’’ said Father Reuter.

“Jesus’ arms were now almost against his chest. The chest cavity was ever so slowly being crushed. Every breath was sheer torture. Jesus had lost a great deal of blood from the unrelenting and severe beatings, the scourging and the crown of thorns. He was dehydrated. Therefore, there would have been less oxygen in his blood. His heart begun to beat faster in a vain attempt to compensate for the oxygen, which he needed badly, but which was denied him. In order to take one tortuous breath, Jesus had to propel himself on the nails in his feet. This was almost impossible for him. Indeed, every few seconds he would pass out. His back, in pieces because of he scourging, would constantly scrape the stake full of splinters. The whole agony of trying to inhale and exhale became more intense and unbearable as the hours passed. The heart literally exploded or the man died from asphyxiation.”

“Suddenly the sky was now black. Jesus was near death. He used his last remaining breath to say,” Father, into they hands I commend my spirit.”

“He stopped breathing. Jesus had fulfilled his mission on earth. God and the Cosmic Forces had taken their son back.”

Father Reuter waited a few seconds and then explained. “Because Jesus had been savagely beaten, scourged, tortured with the crown of thorns and forced to carry his cross; he died in a very short period of time. The Romans did not break his legs to make sure he was truly dead. One of them pierced his side with a spear. There was no blood on the spear, just liquid trickled out.”

Not a sound came from the faithful at the Ateneo Auditorium. “As I look at some of you, weeping silently, many of whom I know and love, I can’t help but remember the first Holy Week we all observed a few months after Manila was liberated. Destruction was everywhere. The dust was so thick no one could breathe without a cloth or bandana over his or her mouth. The stench of death penetrated our nostrils. We moved like automatons. No doubt about it, we were all in shock. Pontoon bridges were hastily built by the US navy Seabees - there was not a bridge large or small left standing. So many of us dead, missing, maimed, mutilated and wounded. So many of our homes, churches, schools and buildings bombed if not obliterated. That did not deter us from observing the Passion and rejoicing in the Resurrection of Jesus and of our once beautiful city. God bless the Philippines. May the Filipinos endure and prevail

In the hushed auditorium of the Ateneo University, Dona Esperanza blew her nose and stanched the tears from her face. Almost everyone was occupied with the same actions. Fray Paco stood on a black silk cushion on her lap. Not a peep for three hours had ensued from his beak. Not a piece of feces had marred the perfection of the black silk. He was used to this services on Good Friday. Fray Paco had first accompanied his Beloved Don Cesar to church on Good Friday for the sermon on the Seven Last Words. At that time, the service was in Castilian. This tradition continued for 40 years. The learned Jesuits had given him the name of Fray (Little Friar in Castilian) and Paco (the diminutive of Francisco – Francis) in irony because of his blasphemous and oath filled beak. They said that he did not fully understand the meaning of the Passion but that he was intelligent enough to sense that it was an event, which had shaken and changed the world. It would continue until the end of planet Earth and perhaps beyond it. Hence, his long silence year after year for forty years during the observance of the Seven Last Words.

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