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decoding Christianity; In a new series starting on S4C next week, journalist Tweli Griffiths embarks on a personal journey to uncover the meanings of Christian symbols and rituals. In the first programme he spends Easter in the Philippines, where he witnesses a bizarre event. This is the story of what he saw.

Byline: journalist Tweli Griffiths

A SMALL crowd huddled around a small enclosure, in the centre of which was a large wooden cross. From a simple concrete shed nearby, Jackson Cunanan, dressed in a purple robe, prayed silently, and then walked to the enclosure to be crucified.

Pampanga, in the Philippines, is one of the few places in the world where this ritual still takes place on Good Friday.

It is based on the belief, set out in the Nicene Creed in the 4th century, that Christ was not just divine, but a flesh and blood person as well, and that he suffered.

As Jackson lies down on the cross, his arms are tied to the crosspiece, and his feet rest on a small shelf.

He grimaces as the nails are hammered into his hands, and there is a gasp of sympathy from the onlookers.

The Cross is raised to a vertical position, and, as he tries to emulate Christ's suffering, Jackson contemplates his sins.

After 15 minutes, he lowers his head to indicate he's had enough. The cross is lowered and he winces again as the nails are removed, and cleaned with alcohol in readiness for the next sinner.

This is Jackson's way of asking for a favour from God. He believes that true atonement for sins can only happen by suffering as Jesus suffered.

"It would be wrong to say I don't suffer as the nails are driven in," he says. "But I don't feel physical pain, I feel a special, complete union with Christ." He is one of nine men to be crucified during the morning. The villagers are poor, and have suffered.

They lost their original homes after a volcanic eruption at Mount Pinatubo nearby, in 1991.

Their plight is linked to the crucifixions. To these Catholic people, Christ became a man, who would suffer in order to identify himself with the suffering of his people.

But there aren't any Catholic priests in the ceremony today.

The Church does not sanction the crucifixions officially, but it doesn't forbid it either. A local bishop, Roberto Mallari, tells me that it's part of the Filipino character to identify with suffering.

"We're usually on the side of the abused and downtrodden," he says, "As Christ was abused and downtrodden.

What is important is that Jesus was made flesh, to show his love for us, by suffering with us."

Another element in the ceremony is the Filipinos' love for showmanship and drama.

And the "sinners" don't seem to suffer any permanent damage.

Two "executioners" as they're called here, are responsible for the hammer and nails. They travel from one crucifixion to another, and know exactly where the nails should be placed to avoid serious injury to the hands.

Jackson, after all, is going through all this for the 13th time.

Just 30 minutes after another volunteer came down from the cross, I see him ride his scooter home.

Antibiotics are taken to tackle any infection from the nails.

I have no doubt, however, that the motivation behind these crucifixions is totally sincere and deeply felt. To these people, physical suffering is proof of their devotion.

This is even more obvious in much bloodier scenes on the streets of nearby towns, where processions of young men could be seen flagellating their backs with whips made from bamboo sticks embedded with pieces of broken glass.

Historically, the flagellants were a religious cult which emerged in the Middle Ages. The belief was that suffering is caused by sin, and self punishment could help them avoid punishment by God.

His back lacerated by the constant whipping, Arnold Angeles tells me the purpose of his penitence is to gain healing for his father, who suffers badly from asthma.

"I believe his condition has improved since I began my flagellation three years ago," he says.

"It is also a way for me to feel the same pain as Christ, and to atone for my sins."

He claims some of his friends became flagellants to set an example to young people who take drugs.

Angeles City, a huge rubbish dump, is also home to a community of poor people who live under canvas.

When the lorries arrive to tip their loads, these unfortunate people scavenge through the filth to recover anything that might be useful - including food.

Yet even here there are flagellants, hoping for a favour from God to improve their lives.

It would be unfair to portray Easter on the Philippines as just a ritual of suffering.

There was a carnival atmosphere in Santo Tomas on Easter Sunday with parades and brass bands.

The highlight for me was the burning of an effigy of Judas. Fireworks strategically placed on the dummy's limbs made him spin in all directions until, to the crowd's delight, his head exploded like a bomb. For me, Easter will never be the same again!

The series includes other events and locations which, as evidence of the power of the Christian faith today, are just as impressive as the rituals in the Philippines.

The Hill of the Cross in Lithuania for example, is a remarkable sight.

It's covered in thousands lions of crosses of all sizes, some even made from car number plates.

They were regularly bulldozed by the communist authorities in the 60s, but they always returned. Today these symbols of defiance are symbols of thanks for prayers answered.

In Soviet times, the Church of the Trinity in Moscow was turned into a disco. Now it's a place of worship again, its dimly lit interior so full of worshippers, it was almost impossible to film there.

Father Mikhail Prokopenko tells me the Russian Orthodox Church is experiencing a revival.

Kulubi is a small village in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. For three days last July it was swamped by a crowd of 20,000 pilgrims, all flocking to St Gabriel's Church. Gabriel is said to be the angel who broke the news to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.

As we filmed the pandemonium in this festival, one thousand babies were baptised, as the mothers thanked the saint for the miracle of conception. No wonder most of the babies will be called Gabriel!

Our own St Winefride's Well here in Wales is one of the biggest pilgrimage sites in Europe.

We thought we were in for a disappointing day's filming until a small crowd arrived - 15 members of one extended family of Irish travellers.

With the grandmother leading the way, her sons, daughters and grandchildren all trooped into the icy water, fully clothed, and hands clasped in prayer. Another Saint has made his mark in, of all places, Reno, Nevada.

Rona Herman, who lives on the outskirts of this gambling city, claims to be in touch with the Archangel Michael.

Her internet site gets thousands of hits from people eager to hear his latest bulletin.

She closed her eyes to give me a personal message from the Archangel himself.

And then there was St Priscilla, who's name was given to one of the network of catacombs below ground in Rome.

It was here, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, that the early Christians, persecuted by the Romans, met in hiding and buried their dead.

Miles of tunnels form a multi-storey cemetery housing half a million tombs, littered with bones and the symbols which became the secret language of their faith.

All that changed with the battle to control the Roman Empire at the Milvian Bridge in Rome.

The victor, Constantine, credited his success to a vision of Christ, and showed his thanks by making the faith legal - a crucial milestone in the history of Christianity.

Other locations in the series also tell a different story - of the arguments that led to splits and divisions in Christianity. At the Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul, it's easy to imagine the huge doors swinging open as a papal delegation barged in to excommunicate the entire population of the city.

The sparse interior of Capel Cildwrn, in Llangefni on Anglesey - where the fiery Christmas Evans preached - shows the Protestant rejection of what it saw as Catholic idolatory.

In the series, we see how seemingly minor disagreements in Christianity often became harmful divisions, sometimes fuelled by political ambitions and expediency. Can the two billion Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians in the world ever reunite to form one Christian Church?

Does it matter if they don't?

At some point in their lives, Christians embark on some kind of journey to uncover the meanings of the symbolism and rituals in their faith.

This series was my journey so far, and I feel as if it's only just begun.

Cod Cristnogaeth can be seen on S4C at 9pm on Tuesday. English subtitles are available


A recent crucifixion in Pampanga, in the Philippines
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jun 14, 2008
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