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.