Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Santo Entierro de Lukban

Although Good Friday is still plenty of hours away, I thought I would post this video of the procession of the Santo Entierro of Lukban, in the province of Quezon. This image is unique in that, not only is it thought to be miraculous, it also provides one of the most awesome spectacles of Semana Santa in the Philippines. Like many images of the Dead Christ, Lukban's has its own 'family', which takes great care to appoint it with an inheritance, and its general upkeep. At morning of Good Friday, the image is taken by a group of men, dressed in white, where it is wrapped in a white cloth and prepared for the afternoon's procession. The events reach a fever pitch come afternoon of Good Friday; the image is then processed, to the clap of dozens of bamboo clappers, which take the place of the rueda (wooden clapper), as bells are prohibited to be rung until Black Saturday. The devotees scramble to get to the image as it returns to the Church; some of them go about it drunk, and even try to bite a piece of the Lord away, in the hopes of securing good luck and divine protection in the year ahead.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Because it's already Holy Week.

The singing of the Pasyon is one of the most enduring Filipino traditions. In it, groups of devotees, usually families, cofradias, and sometimes even the merely curious, take turns chanting the Passion of Our Lord for a twenty four hour period. The pabasa (i.e., the chanting of the Pasyon) is held continuously, with only minor breaks allowed. It is commonly held on noon of Maundy Thursday and lasts all the way to noon of Good Friday.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Contagion and Incarnation

A lot has been said about the so-called 'incarnational' aspect of Catholicism. We speak of it as some sort of general principle that allows us to see and feel the manifestations of the divine through sensible means, which, while not always making sense 'Biblically speaking' (itself already a loaded term), nevertheless assumes a certain benevolence by dint of Papal fiat and gradual acceptability into 'Christian culture' (however one defines it) over the centuries. To be honest, I've always felt a certain New Ageness in how many Catholics usually approach the subject. Maybe New Age isn't even the correct term; rather, there is a feeling of entitled-- but ultimately 'accepting'-- condescension towards these peculiarities of the faith that seems totally alien to how Catholics of old behaved around these things.

My memory is a bit hazy, and I am writing this without my notes handy, but I recall that it was James George Frazer, who gives, in his seminal study of anthropology and religion, the first description of the Law of Contagion. Per Frazer, when two persons or objects come into contact, there is established a certain magical link between the two; thus, the objects now share a common bond, which only a ritual of desacralization, or perhaps the destruction of one or the other, can sever. It would seem that this principle would be the concrete application, the place where the rubber meets the road, as it were, of this incarnationality of the faith. That we believe God descended into earth and dwelt amongst men immediately grounds and distills the very source of this incarnationality in a specific locus and history. There IS a place on earth where once trod the feet of the Man-God, and there IS a place on earth where He once lived-- where He ate, slept, ran, and died. Beyond the poetic aspect, however, one can also make the claim that the objects which participated in the activities of the Christ have also been changed, forever.

And thus, these objects begin to acquire certain powers, as it were. Having been 'touched' by God, they now contain a trace of His power. Scripture, for example, speaks of the Ark of the Covenant and its capacity to level mountains; and in the pious legends of Christian Europe, we hear of the Spear of Destiny, which, it is said, would give its possessor unlimited power and invincibility in combat. In short, incarnationality, more than simply being elegant or poetic, is also dangerous. Thus relics are not just pious treasure troves of memory and history, but also miracle-workers; they are conduits of divine blessing, and in some cases, even displeasure. In the Philippines, the most powerful example of this is, of course, the image of the Black Nazarene, a wooden statue of Christ that was burnt, bombed, and nearly destroyed several times-- but has always survived. For many of its devotees, this is proof positive that the image is 'favored' by God, and that He chooses to work miracles through it.

As I have mentioned several times, the legions of devotees of the Black Nazarene-- mainly male, working class, and desperate-- honor the image in the hopes of securing divine favor on them and their families for the year. However, given the number of people, deaths are not infrequent; this has given rise to the popular notion (though theologically incorrect; but who's keeping track) that the Nazarene demands a 'sacrifice' every few years or so. In the vernacular, they would say 'Nagbuwis na naman ang Panginoon' (The Lord has taken His toll yet again). A good number of devotees see this, however, as a necessary act in order to keep, prolong, and intensify the efficacy of the statue in mediating grasya (grace), biyaya (blessings), and pagpapala (divine favor)*. Still, In January every year, without fail, millions of barefoot, maroon-clad pilgrims continue to troop to the Quiapo district of Manila, to join the procession of the miraculous image. It is a sweaty, sticky, immeasurably stressful event that could last up to 15 hours, depending on the number of people.

On another level, stories of images of the Christ Child coming to life and walking in church grounds-- common features in the religious myths of the Philippines and Mexico-- also present another face of incarnationality, that of the blurring between archetype and symbol. In traditional Filipino Catholic piety, for example, it is considered rude to refer to an image of a saint as an 'it'; they must always be called by their names, and in many cases, are even addressed with proper pronouns. But these are just the basics; there have been cases too of santos being bequeathed large tracts of land, or having trustfunds set up for the upkeep of the santo for the processions. It would not be too far-fetched to say that, for many devotees, the santo they are venerating is the saint himself, or even Christ Himself (for images of the Nazarene and the Santo Nino). In the 1970s, a flood devastated parts of Manila, and the mayor at the time professed that this was punishment for the theft of an image of the Santo Nino in one of Manila's old churches. How can an image exact retribution, unless God Himself is affronted directly? Eventually, the issue died down, although, to my knowledge, the image of the Nino has not been returned.

Mind you, in traditionally Catholic societies, the means of production of religious imagery are not centralized, let alone specialized. A carpenter can make an image of the Virgin for his own veneration and it would be just as legitimate, just as important as the so-called 'artisanal' (and expensive, I might add)religious imagery proffered by many workshops today. To be honest, I have always thought the Santo Nino de Cebu looks like an overripe strawberry, and too many images of the Virgin look like they're constipated with grief. But who's to stop God from 'possessing' these images and making them conduits of His divine power? Just as the concept of the author is a modern one, so too is the concept of God working only through official, approved, pre-screened channels. Indeed, much of traditional piety, it seems, stems from the dionysiac, the untamed and unofficial pockets of Catholicism. I am speaking here of images that can kill or curse farmlands when not properly honored, of crucifixes coming to life and relics that give their possessor immortality, invincibility, and what not.

How does this square with the Gospel truth of there being only one God, and one source of holiness? A modern, protestantized Christian reader might see such 'excesses' as scandalous; but the fact is, all religions have, in one way or another, sacralized the profane, that is, the visible, perceptible elements of the world. Mircea Eliade writes in The Myth of Eternal Return that a return to the center-- that is, the 'point' of contact between higher and profane realities-- is an essential feature of practically all religions. However, the center need not be fixed; what ultimately matters, it seems, is that the center be recreated, translocated, even, as often and as many times possible. Now it has been ages since I've read that work, so some corrections may be in order. Perhaps the question we should be asking then is, why isn't Christianity more pagan, in the sense that it seems to reject the logical, fundamental conclusion of the Incarnation-- that we ourselves can be gods? These are not my words, but those of St. Athanasius, the great defender of doctrinal orthodoxy.

The theological landscape of today's Christianity, characterized by a 'weak' incarnation (i.e., mere ingestion and 'living out' of moral principles) that seeks to form only good, upstanding men, is the odd one out in the long history of the Church. Perhaps it is inevitable, given the rise of modern science and the technocratization of the Church, that we are now less likely to turn to the divine, or to be more precise, the non-rationalizable, to put an end to our misery. In such a paradigm, the saints would lose their niche and power. Whether or not this is a rut that we can still come out of, I am not sure; nor am I entirely militant about its return. Let's not rationalize it: at the end of the day, there are some devotions that simply won't make a comeback anytime soon, because they are simply not possible in the modern cultural landscape. Perhaps, the answer would lie in making Christians animists again, instead of automatons occupying in a barren landscape. It is not so much that God has left us; we are simply too blind to see Him in anything else than what is not compartmentalized for us.


* Please bear in mind that this is not a formal study of the Black Nazarene phenomenon; hence the terms cited above are my own, born of an attempt to categorize the common threads that bind and concern its myriad devotees.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Technocracy and the Catholic Church

There is no doubt that the Church is in a lot of trouble these days. It is dying in Europe, where for so long it was a fixture of daily life, and is under attack from all corners, whether by Muslims, Hindus, secularists, and what have you. As well, it doesn't help that It has sex abuse crises to deal with left and right, an impoverished liturgy, in addition to being considered less and less relevant in the public sphere with each passing year. Surely, this should cause us to pause for concern. The Church should be fixed, we say. But can it really be done?

At a discussion in class recently, a student brought up the topic of the very recent clerical controversies in the Vatican as proof of the Church's hypocrisy, and how these incidents should make all Catholics re-evaluate their commitment to an organization which promotes such activity. This was readily countered by another student, a Catholic, who, while condemning the acts, proposed as solution the training and development of a new, 'better' class of priests. Normally, I would have agreed with him, and it is easy to see the rationale of this position. With a more 'faithful' (i.e., papally minded), orthodox class of priest, it should follow that these would necessarily be more attuned to the requirements of the clerical life.

Forgive me for being cynical, but I find such meanderings a bit technocratic. I guess it would be difficult to avoid in our context; the primary model of good governance that we have is largely based on corporate models and their corresponding effects, namely efficiency and a customer-based orientation. In such a paradigm, the Church would be more akin to a machine of sorts, ably distributing the sacraments and culture according to a prescribed rubrical formulation, as if such a thing as a lowest common denominator of Catholicism were existent. It would follow that the priests of such a Church would be managers and PR people as well, in addition to being God-appointed shepherds of souls. The folly of such thinking should be evident: If we just get a certain number of well-intentioned, papally-minded Catholics to speak a few fashionable shibboleths every now and then, then the Church would be strong and be able to resist the creeping forces of Mohammedanism, secularism, etc., and bump the stock market a couple of points up as well. Such thinking presumes the Church Institution as some sort of mere homogenizing sacramental-juggernaut, and that the sign of 'holiness' is necessarily to be part of an overly pasteurized papal groupie. This done, we can now sit back and gamely re-read Sollicitudo rei socialis for the nth and sip chamomile tea for the rest of the day.

It is interesting that more and more Catholics have to resort to the 'interiorization of faith' just to prove the inherent goodness of Catholicism. In short, it now has to be marketable in addition to being 'really effective.' It shouldn't be too surprising, though, since it would only seem to be the logical conclusion of Trent and Vatican II-- both of which, I am sorry to say, were more concerned with presenting the rationality of Catholicism than its poetry or holiness-- i.e., its fun part. Both councils, for example, were cathartic, in that they purged the Church of what they deemed as accretions-- certain devotions, saints, rites, even iconographies were all found wanting and discarded. Now I wouldn't say that there exists an absolute, one to one correspondence between this and the gradual decline of the Catholic superstructure; however, with no more saints of the impossible, to whom does one turn?

And so the priests had to become technocrats, in order to fill the 'power vacuum' previously occupied by the saints. Streamlining became the order of the day, and we can thus perhaps see where how the 'Church as People of God' theology developed. With interiorization being the only prerequisite to being a good Catholic, and being identified with the mind of the Pope seemingly the only real visible requirement of an interiorized faith, what's to stop the laity from participating in the internal processes of the Church? Why couldn't they take a more active, participatory role Ecclesiastical legislating, or indeed, have a say in the development of doctrine?

Of course, technocracy can take different forms. It would seem that, for many Catholics of the conservative/traditionalist stripe, the proliferation of Catholic pundit blogs and all these Vaticanista blogs and those as well fighting for the 'culture of life' and the 'culture wars'(not saying it's not important) are all signs of a coming Catholic renaissance. Again, I'm sorry to be negative, but this is no more a proof of a massive reunion between Rome and Constantinople in December or of a group of Peruvians in some high-up mountain discussing the Council of Trent over biscuits than the 'reductive power of the close-up.' The shibboleths may be getting louder, but it only means we are screaming louder, and not necessarily that the message is coming through.

At this point, it would be necessary to ask: does the Church need fixing? And for that matter, can the Church be fixed? Can WE fix the Church? I think this question is ultimately irrelevant. If the Church is indeed the Mystical Body of Christ, it would be sobering to recall that that Body suffered some of the worst indignations the human will was capable of giving; as such, we should not be surprised if the Church were to be under attack all the time. To attempt to 'fix' it, I'm afraid, would be missing the point, first, that all men are sinners, and that there is no permanent solution to this condition until the Second Coming, and second, that it is precisely God's grace that we need most of all, and not some artificial band-aid solution. To take a leaf from the 'Church as People of God' line of thinking, if my body is indeed the temple of the Holy Ghost, there is no way of making this happen but through an ascent into higher realities; and this is something no tecnhnocratic pasteurization can ever hope to accomplish.

I hate to say it, but Christianity, it seems, is inherently patronal rather than bureaucratic. It is not through institutional mediation, not even that of the paperwork of the Roman Curia, that we are transformed into the image of Christ, but ultimately, only through His grace. Perhaps this is why patronage politics and cutting corners seem to be more 'at home' in Catholic societies than they are in Protestant ones; but hey, if it is eternity at stake, I should do well to make the best of what is given me.