Friday, Jaunuary 9th -- otherwise known as the Feast of the Black Nazarene here in the Philippines -- has come and gone, but the excitement and fear and fervor of that day are still fresh with me. This year, the authorities are reporting that as much as 3.2 million people joined the five kilometer long procession, which took nearly thirteen hours to conclude. As in years past, the sheer devotion and spectacle of that day took on an earth-shattering intensity, as the never-ending sea of devotees ran to the much venerated image, jumping at the carroza and wiping the limbs, face, and cross of the Lord in the hope of securing a better future for this year.
I guess it is the greatest blessing of God that I have never had to attend a procession like the Black Nazarene's; my own life, though not perfect, is ultimately far better than the millions of the poor and destitute in this country who struggle to eke out a living amidst all the corruption and scandal. I have written enough about the procession last year to paint a picture of the devotees: they are mostly male, ranging from pre-pubescent teens to grizzled adults, and mostly poor. But one of the greatest miracles of the Nazarene is its bridging of that yawning chasm that separates wealthy and destitute in the developing world-- there are, too, wealthy devotees, politicians, businessmen, even doctors praying for a miracle of their own. They come to that throbbing, engorged artery that is Quiapo, heart of Manila, dressed in scarlets and yellows, barefoot, dirty, grimy, but animated by a divine zeal bordering on fanaticism.
The stories of the devotees' private miracles, in contrast, are mundane, boring, perhaps even considered totally ordinary by the educated; they range from being able to send sons and daughters to school, landing a rank-and-file job, even having enough food to survive on for the previous year. But poverty is often the greatest motivating force behind man's reasoning, and these people believe, even in the deepest pits of their quivering guts, that it is through the Lord's mercy and beneficence that their life hinges on. It is a sobering, humbling thought, at once deeply inspiring and offensive to our burgeoning pride. The urbane, especially, find it ludicrous that a 400 year old burnt statue could dispense miracles, grace, and blessings from merely being wiped by a towel, almost as if it were a soda machine.
But these condescensions are only possible because we have never had to suffer the thought of our children dying in our arms because we could not provide them with a meal, because we have always taken our menial jobs for granted, because we have our own rooms and homes and do not sleep in ten-to-a-bed tenements and hovels , because we have all the comforts of the middle class and suburbia. But even a cursory look outside our comfort zones will show that the world is far from perfect, a vastly different world from the postcard-perfect homes of smiling housewives and SUV-driving teens-- the real and unattainable pipe dreams of the rest of the world. It is the educated, the urbane, the pleasant who are different.
Perhaps I am being jaded, but I am no longer surprised by the number of people joining the procession of the Black Nazarene; granted, three million people is a large number anywhere in the world, and it definitely attests to the continuing faith and devotion of the Filipino people to a the God of a transplanted religion, and really its ways and culture. But with the number of the poor rising every year, and especially because of the global recession which hovers like a cloud on the mythical, indestructible cities of the First World (and by osmosis, the developing world), I can see why and how Faith is becoming more and more important-- so important, that many are at a crossroads whether one should continue persevering in it, or discard it completely. In many ways, this country is still a Catholic country, but the situation is by no means perfect. For example, there are 3,000 priests at best in the Philippines serviving 70+ million souls. That the West thinks that the Third World will be the salvation of the Church is optimistic at best, but the reality is far from ideal (something which Arturo also touches on in this post).
In the Feast of the Black Nazarene, is is said, there is neither rich nor poor, only the destitute. The housewife struggling to raise her rebellious children, the jeepney driver trying to kick his drug habit, the banker trying to break off his multiple extramarital affairs, and the policeman torn whether to to work within the framework of the law or take justice in his own hands are just some of the devotees of the Suffering Lord. In the procession, they bring to him their cares and worries, hatreds, problems, and sins, hoping they could at least earn their redemption by joining the unending, undulating sea of people who push, jostle, and shove in the hopes of attaining the same thing. But rather than scoff at the perceived hypocrisy of the sinners who make the Lord their patron, the depths of the mercy and love of God are, to me, revealed; for He too grew and lived in the same conditions, amidst the dregs of humanity and the most hardened of sinners. It is perhaps the greatest meditation on the limitless love of God, and it rightfully brings a chill down my spine just thinking about it. Sometimes, we need to remember that we are sinners in order to realize the obvious-- that God loves us, and that He died for us. It really is that simple. It is really that profound.
Evil exists in this world, whether we like it or not. We can try to avoid it by building walls of comfort and pleasantness all around us, but this only mutes, and does not eliminate, the fact that the world is awash in the filth and scum of our own doing. And as long as poverty, hunger, sin and death exist, man will always try to find a way to escape it. Perhaps the greatest sin of suburbia is that good and evil do not exist in its worldview; there is only comfort, complacency, and gratification (have you ever seen an episode of 'My Super Sweet Sixteen'?). We are the very lukewarm which Our Lord condemns in the strongest terms. Many people today condemn the failures of religion as ritual-wrapped-redemption; they sneer at it, telling the 'poor, ignorant' religionists to go on and live their lives as they please. But for most of us, survival is far more pertinent than worrying about closet space for the newest designer clothes.
Hours before the grand procession ended, the news showed a clip of a woman in her late 70s, dressed in the scarlet of the Nazarene's devotees and a gigantic white veil, hobbling toward the image in the mere hope of seeing it. Her face was scarred and pitted by years of disease, her small, gaunt frame clearly ravaged by the vicissitudes of age and countless concerns. But the woman smiled, and I saw in her smile the same gratitude of relief and thanksgiving that must have characterized the faces of the womanizers, drunkards, pimps, and criminals who seek forgiveness and redemption in the procession. And they will continue to troop to the suffering Christ, even as their souls are caked in sin, because of their immutable faith that, there is, in the end, a loving God Who understands them. I thank God for blessing me and my family with a prosperous life; I thank God, too, that He has made me see his goodness and love.