Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno

There is no greater feast in all of Manila than that of the Black Nazarene, held annually on the 9th of January. In the historic old district of Quiapo, where old-wealth Spaniards intermingle with Muslim traders from the South and Chinese merchants, literally hundreds of thousands-- which could swell up to a million or more-- converge upon the dingy, narrow streets to follow, and if one is lucky, touch, the image of the suffering Christ, which is said to effect numberless miracles.

The image came to Manila from Acapulco, Mexico, in 1606. Legends abound about the translation of this image of the Lord- about how the ship that carried the image of the Nazarene was razed by fire, and how it alone survived, blackened by the fumes but miraculously intact. In 1791, and again in 1929, Quiapo church was burned-- but again, the image survived, by providence. In 1645 and 1843, earthquakes reduced the church to rubble, but the Lord survived, unscathed. It even survived the destructive bombing of Manila by the Japanese in World War II, and all these events have fueled the already fervent devotion of the people to this venerable icon.

Truth be told, I have never participated in the procession itself. I have only witnessed it on television-- and what a sight it was! The Nazarene's devotees, hundreds of thousands strong, clad in maroon, wave their towels as the carriage exits the portals of the church, shouting 'Vivas' in one magnanimous voice. From then on, it is a frenzied race to even so much as touch the ropes pulling the image's carriage, and it would be an even greater honor to be able to wipe the face of the Christ. From above, the devotees look like a sea of blood catching fire, the reds and yellows of their clothes glistening brightly. All come to worship at the procession-- mystics, healers, the superstitious, the devout, the heretic, the orthodox, the merely curious, the disgusted, the exploiters and the exploited, the afflicted and the healthy, rich, poor, educated and uneducated alike. There is a belief which persists to this day that touching the face of the Lord would absolve one of all his sins-- which might have arisen from the fact that January 9 is traditionally the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord; as is usual in Hispanized countries, processions are held on great feasts. Thus, what might have been originally been a mere indulgence was 'elevated' into an almost sacramental plane.

The devotees of the Black Nazarene are mostly male; they range from thugs to politicians (the Philippine vice president is a devotee) to businessmen, but in the gigantic blur created by the reds and yellows, social rank and privilege are cast into the wind: one is either favored to have been able to get near the carriage or not. Marching bands, dancing girls, circus acts-- fire-breathers, stilt-walkers-- as well as tributes from the police and the military all hail the Lord in his passing. The noise is deafening, but at the same time mysteriously calming, and the furious swishing of white towels, held aloft and waved by fevered hands, all make the scene seem like it was transplanted by some freak of the supernatural from the 17th century. A curious calm descends on the mind when the Nazarene comes into view. His devotees desperately, madly, cling or try to cling to him, never mind the sweat and heat beating down upon their backs. They see the image as some sort of scapegoat, banging their foreheads in shame and sorrow at its carriage, touching the image's feet and hands in the hope of passing their sins onto him.

In some ways it can be cathartic, a way to unload all the filth and scum that have soiled one's soul in the course of the year. As mentioned, many still see participation in the procession as a quasi-sacramental act-- an unfortunate superstition. However, for all the quality (or lack thereof) and personal defects of the Nazarene's devotees, faith ultimately rings true in the end. Yes, there is violence, and yes, there are occasional deaths. But the barefoot, maroon-clad, towel-waving devotees continue to throng in this old district of Manila to honor the Suffering Christ, He who bore the cross upon His shoulders and in many ways still continues to do so today. What is faith, ultimately, but the firm trust in God? Isn't faith, then, necessarily an act, and not just mere mental exercise?

Perhaps we may feel comfortable criticizing what seems for us an excess from a distance. We may even frown upon the motives of some of the Black Nazarene's devotees-- perhaps it is for material concern that one goes to the procession, while perhaps for another it is merely cultural. In truth, many devotees of the Black Nazarene do go to the procession for an ulterior motive; joining it is seen as the transactional act, the payment, as it were, for the favor asked for. Locally, this is known as a panata-- a religious undertaking taken for the benefit of a favor, whether for oneself or for his loved ones. In English, panata is most often rendered as oath, or vow. Yes, there is a chance that the devotion looks like one big bargain with God; and we, who have the benefit of proper catechesis and proper schooling, might in turn see the whole ritual as folk magic, or glorified superstition.

But then again faith does not, and almost never does, function by the books. To have faith in the usual postmodern sense is to have religion-- go to church on Sundays, eat well, dress well, and get it over with. That is faith for the well-off. The poor, who do not have the benefits of good education, believe (sometimes even in false hope) with their guts. They believe because that is the only thing they can do, and they do so with what limited means they can. It is a strange coincidence that the icon of the Lord dearest to Filipinos is that of Him carrying the Cross, kneeling from the heavy load on His shoulders. What is it with this image, so fixated on the collective consciousness of a people for whom Christianity was but a transplanted religion, that spurs to great a devotion? Maybe, in the end, we all just need to suffer a little bit more. Yes, it does sound like a masochistic suggestion, but it may be the only way for us to eradicate these notions of faith as something of an instructional video.

Thinking of the Black Nazarene, I am reminded of how Our Lord, while on earth, worked as a mere carpenter, and how He was indeed born in a manger, with nothing but beasts for companions. Many of us, sadly, expect to find Him, and consequently true faith, in palaces and great churches and all the best places of the earth. Too bad that God decided on a different course; instead of ambassadors of the world's empires, He had shepherds as his visitors, and was not even welcome in His own land. Had we known all this firsthand, would we still have had faith in that Child born in the manger?

As the sun sets on the afternoon of this January day, the Nazarene returns once more to his basilica, its devotees, still fresh and harried by the day's activities, eagerly awaiting next year's feast. They return to their old ways, drinking, swearing, womanizing and thieving. Sin has a remarkable ability to sting those to whom grace has but returned, the temptations of a worldly life too strong even for a panata to stop. But there are also some who have clearly seen something of the supernatural; they pause for a while, and give glory to the Son of God, who carried a cross while He walked the earth. But whoever they are, the day's events are sure to leave their mark-- and they will continue to troop, saint and sinner alike, to Christ, and hope to carry their own crosses alongside Him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I forgot about the feast of the Black Nazarene and I'm glad you posted some reflections on it this year. Your blog is great but I especially enjoy when you write about the Nazarene. It almost seems to characterize the heart of Filipino devotion.