Monday, January 21, 2008

Paganizing Christianity

On the third Sunday of January, Filipinos troop once more to the streets, singing and dancing, in honor of the Santo Nino de Cebu, the first icon of the Christ to reach these isles some 500 years ago. Though it looks young as ever, the image of the Holy Child is really five centuries old; it made the historic voyage that proved the earth was round, borne aloft by Magellan and his crew of sailors, was gifted to Queen Juana and Raja Humabon of Cebu (who were baptized by the Spaniards, hence the Hispanic names). When the Filipinos revolted against the Spaniards, their settlements-- as well as those of their native allies-- were burned, and it was presumed that the Santo Nino itself perished in the infernal blaze.

Forty four years later, when Miguel Lopez de Legaspi braved the seas and reached where his predecessor had fallen, the Spaniards, thinking the apostasy of Magellan's converts to be succinct, were surprised to see the image of the Santo Nino-- burned and blackened by the fire-- being worshipped by the natives through song and dance, and resting on a pedestal of fine make. Apparently, the Santo Nino survived the threats of apostasy and the war-cries of the old, heathen gods; and in that span of forty four years whence the natives of Cebu last had contact with the Spanish, the Santo Nino was 'transformed', it seemed, into a powerful rain god, chielf amongst the ancient deities and greatest of them all.

The Spaniards found that dance played an important, if not an integral, part in the natives' worship. The Sinulog, as the dance came to be called, was not unlike modern day Mardi Gras, in that it fused street revelry with the fervent piety of the natives. When the Santo Nino is feasted, men and women don brightly-colored costumes, festooning themselves with trinkets and feathers; they bring gongs and flutes and drums and trumpets to the street, making a raucous noise that is part cacophony and part symphony of faith, gaiety, pageantry, and solemnity. They dance in a frenzy, filling the streets, gyrating and swaying with (to the eyes of the on-believer) an almost pagan intensity. And throughout the ceremony, the image of the Santo Nino-- the same one that first came to these islands 500 years ago, who saw the world become round-- gazes upon his people, borne aloft a platform that is an ostentatious display of sheer, Rococo splendor. Adding to the cacophony are the cries of the devotees: 'Viva Pit Senor!' Hail the Little Lord!

Legends, too, abound about the image of the Christ Child. One that is often told, even today, is how it was said to disappear from its shrine every night. The caretakers of the Basilica would look all around the complex, searching even the convents, for the image of the Santo Nino, but to no avail. Miraculously, when the caretakers would return to inspect some more the next day, they would find the Santo Nino back in its shrine, with not a few blades of grass on its cape and boots. The explanation of the elders was that the Little Lord was bored, being stuck in a glass casket to be reverenced by pious old ladies and fevered devotees all day long. To relieve its stress, it would take a stroll on the Basilica's gardens at night, and would even go out of its way to find some playmates.

Another popular story is how the image of the Santo Nino was brought to a newer, bigger church, since its old basilica was apparently becoming ill-equipped with regards to dealing with its increasing number of devotees. According to the story, on the night the Santo Nino was transferred to the new church, the caretakers were surprised to see that the Child was not there. Fearing the worst, they alerted the whole town of the theft, and announced heavy punishments to whoever was responsible for the so-called crime. Some days passed; but on one night, just as the priests were about to enter the shrine, the Santo Nino was back! In a surreal turn of events, it was suggested that the statue's legs be cut off in order to prevent it from wandering away; but even without its legs, the image would still vanish and reappear. Finally, giving in to the Lord's request, the image was transferred to its original site, where it has remained ever since.

It has often been said that the image of the Santo Nino was THE single most important symbol that facilitated the conversion of the Philippines. Reading the old legends and pious stories of our elders, the theme of discovery is one that pops up multiple times: whether it is the Santo Nino playing with children in the streets at night, to the Little Lord taking strolls in the basilica's gardens, to its miraculous vanishing acts, there is always the underlying thread of the Santo Nino as a pilgrim: he travels to little known places of low prestige, constantly trudging the bare earth in his gold-plated boots. In his hand, he holds the globe, symbol of the world, and one that has seemingly grown with every step of the way in its voyage from the Old World into the Ancient World of Asia.

I will not deny that many people frown on such stories today. In the enlightened post-Vatican II world, such stories are seen as far from the pristine Christianity of the Early Church, and one that is envisioned by the Council. I know one man who was a devotee of the Holy Child in his younger years, but altogether stopped believing when he came to realize the full extent of 'paganizing' elements in the cult of the Santo Nino. But how does one exactly define paganism? Is it rising from the dead, or turning water into wine, casting out demons, or speaking with forces beyond our reach? If we are to apply this frame of thought to the Gospel, then it would seem as if the Gospel itself were Pagan; indeed, such a radical framework would almost invariably filter out any hint of the supernatural, leaving only the natural-- cold, lifeless, historical, dry. To use an overused example, what is the use of being Christian, when theoretically, I could be just as good when I join the Red Cross?

The great Filipino writer Nick Joaquin once wrote that, by becoming the last and greatest of the pagan gods, the Santo Nino facilitated the conversion of the Filipino people to Christianity. The image of the Holy Child was literally a tangible hermeneutic of continuity-- but even more so, of transformation. By keeping alive the old cults and the traditional devotions to the old, heathen gods-- now banished into the outer dark-- the Santo Nino was able to conquer the Philippines. It is in this context that this image of the Holy Child is known today as the chief evangelizer of the Philippines. Its genius lay in the fact that it actually preserved, even cultivated, the soil of the Filipino people's Faith.

The idea is novel and at the same time probably 'heretical' (in the sense that is differs from popular opinion, especially as presented on blogs), but I would have to say that the Faith was actually more inculturated than it was before Vatican II. The problem I see with most devotions and belief in general today is that it all looks too mass-produced; the senses of the Filipino hunger for the mystical Baroque splendor of Spanish Catholicism, with its bone-breaking, blood-shedding piety and profoundly human character. Perhaps the surest sign that the Faith is no longer inculturated as it used to be is the fact that many Filipinos are content to follow the hyper-traditionalism of the internet than hearken once more to the old stories that filled their fathers' fathers' eyes with wide-eyed wonder.

Just what does it mean to have an authentic faith? Does it mean being utterly original in praxis, without a care in the world for continuing an established tradition? Does it mean being isolated from the rest of the world? If these are our main definitions of what it means to have an authentic, totally original Faith, then count me out. I would much rather hear stories of smiling, bleeding statues than debate and whine the merits of one type of style versus the other (all that arguing at the NLM over the simplest of matters is really starting to bug me). To out it bluntly, European Christianity is itself an unoriginal thing: it is a Faith that was born in a back water part of the Roman Empire in a remote corner of Asia, that has literally come back full circle to the continent of its nascence. All this thanks to the Santo Nino, who made that maiden voyage five hundred years ago. All this thanks to the Santo Nino, culture hero, and greatest of evangelists. Viva Pit Señor!

1 comment:

Arturo Vasquez said...

This was a very, very good post. Expect more to come...