Wednesday, January 12, 2011
There is an intolerable stench that wafts over the streets of Manila every year on January 9th. It is a highly oppressive smell, composed, it seems, at once partly of the smell of piss and unwashed bodies basking under the glare of tropical heat, mingling with vomit, decay, and seemingly all the grime and grit of the seed underbelly of the mean streets, to form a potent cocktail of truly alarming proportions. It is the kind of smell which seems to simmer in the air, quickened by an inner, smoldering fire, which then seeps into every pore of one’s body. The noise, too, is deafening, a veritable cacophony of shouting and cursing and police sirens and jingles from the ice cream caravan rising in concert with the pealing of church bells and the fervent singing of many hymns.
Such a confusion of various phenomena could only mean that the procession of the Black Nazarene, more properly known as the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno de Quiapo, is once again underway. I have written about this procession before, many times in fact over the past few years. It is a wooden statue of Christ almost as old as the Philippines itself, sent to these islands from Mexico in the Year of Our Lord 1606. As the name suggests, this image of Our Lord is black; legends tell of how the ship carrying the Nazarene caught fire, burning all of its precious cargo but the holy image. Since that time, the image has been revered as miraculous; and over the course of four centuries, it would survive earthquakes, fires, wars, and bombings, most recently in the Second World War. Legends say that when Manila was razed to the ground, and the parish of San Juan Bautista—Quiapo church, where the Nazarene sits enthroned—was all but destroyed, it was the image of the Suffering Christ on the high altar and the tabernacle alone which survived. The devotion to the Nazarene is intense—highly intense. This year, an estimated seven to seven and a half million trooped to the ancient district of Quiapo to pay homage to the revered image. Such a number is nearly impossible to imagine: it is nearly twice the population of New Zealand, but jammed, shoulder to shoulder, back to back, in a mere stretch of road running all but five kilometers. Three million joined the procession while the rest either packed the streets to hail the Lord in his passing or heard Mass at the church, and as per tradition, the devotees were mostly male, who shoved, pushed, climbed, and clambered upon each other all in the hope of touching, even for a split second, the face of Christ.
They walk barefoot, following unshod the barefoot Christ, braving the filth of the streets of Manila, with all the dogshit, piss, refuse, trash and broken bottles that may line the way. The devotees come, either alone or with their families; the procession calls for extreme humility, and so many of the devotees come to Quiapo, that mystical navel, it seems, of all the Philippines, on their feet. Many of them walk for miles and miles, rising before the dawn and spending the whole day in the procession. This devotion to the Nazarene is as intense as it is humbling: upon reaching the church, majority of the devotees drop to their knees and crawl all the way to high altar, starting from the main plaza fronting the church, into the very heart of the temple itself. Their heads are bowed low and from behind, their feet are dark as soot, in imitation of the dark skin of the Lord to whom they devote themselves. When the Nazarene was exposed for public veneration the day before, the line of devotees stretched for hundreds of feet at a time; and indeed, it is not uncommon for such lines to run a kilometer or two in length. Baking under the oppressive heat of the sun, the devotees eventually venerate the image of Christ, bathed as they are in sweat, in contrast to the fragrant image of the Lord, which is bathed in rose water or wine depending on the occasion. Thirsty lips connect with the feet of the statue even as the next devotee, already toothless and half-senile, slobbers over it, and they do this by the tens of thousands for almost a full twenty four hours. But on the day of the procession itself, this devotion reaches its fullest splendor—or, according to some, its highest irrationality. For the procession of the Nazarene is a highly charged, highly violent (in the sense that it keeps a very frenetic pace, despite the slowness of the parade) event; it requires the steeling of one’s guts and a firm, unbreakable commitment, much like the same that Christ showed on the road to Golgotha.
In the Philippines, it has been said that devotion to God and the saints is seen through a very personalistic lens; the word that most closely approximates this personalism is the panata, or a private vow, which a devotee takes in order to secure blessings and prosperity for himself and for his kin-group. The panata can be any form of devotion, which may or may come after the granting of the blessing; it can be a private vow of making a pilgrimage to a shrine and walking on one’s knees to the high altar, or spreading the devotion to the saint by whom it was secured; it can be the wearing of a particular habit in the saint’s honor, or as in the case of the devotion to the Nazarene, attending the procession in his honor. But like the road to Golgotha, the procession is grueling and nearly impossible to comprehend. This year, the procession took an incredible seventeen hours to finish; it started at seven thirty in the morning and lasted all the way to half past midnight, but in every hour the crowds at Quiapo remained thick as ever. From being battered by heat in the morning to being soaked by the rain in the afternoon, right down to being blasted by the chill January air, the devotees stubbornly remained, determined to see the Lord back in his altar.
The procession is always an impressive sight; but at the same time, it also raises a lot of questions. In the few years that I’ve taken an active interest in the procession, I’ve noticed that it has become more and more anti-clerical. I mean this not in the sense that the devotees of the Nazarene actively participate in the stifling of the voice and influence of the clergy, but in the sense that it is now seen as something that is beyond the influence of the clerics. Many hold that even touching the statue is sufficient in wiping out one’s sins completely, which contradicts the need for sacramental confession. Thus, the Black Nazarene is venerated by thugs and murderers side by side with the desperate and the unlettered, all hoping for some proverbial ‘quick fix.’ That a great number of devotees walk on their knees to venerate the Black Christ, and that it is bathed, dressed, kissed, wiped, and genuflected to, also strikes the catechized as bordering too close to idolatry, and this criticism is often not unwarranted. Many of us middle class, catechized Catholics find such ideas abhorrent, if not downright heretical; but then again, all heresy, to paraphrase Brother William from The Name of the Rose, is but the banner of a reality. For the followers of the Black Nazarene, this is the reality of incomprehensible and inescapable poverty.
The heretic never really cares for the heresy; all he cares for is the hope and the promise that it delivers. In Manila, poverty can be of such intolerable level that one often finds families living under bridges or living in hovels that look (and are often appointed) more like dog houses. This is a kind of poverty that is totally alien to me: it is the kind of poverty that crushes one to barely discernible pulp, that dehumanizes one to previously unplumbed depths. I cannot help but imagine, though, that this kind of poverty approximates the reality of the Incarnation of Christ: from the highest heavens He wills to live amongst the squalor and wretchedness of human existence, with all its misery and sadness and imperfections. It is to us, mired as we are in the existence of sin, that Christ came; and we mobbed Him, followed Him, and pleaded with Him for a chance at a better life. In a sense, there really is nothing new in the procession of the Black Nazarene that has not happened already in the Gospels; like then as now, there are the doubters, who scoff at His miracles as mere parlor tricks, and there are those who remain blind to the love of God. They reason: all the money, time, and attention paid to this old and decrepit statue could better serve man if they were directed at his betterment. In a sense, this is true, and of that there can be no doubt: but, at the same time, I believe this line of reasoning fails to address the problem of dehumanization.
We can work and reconfigure the system all we like, but until the time that this reaching out can be on a ‘tangible’ level, there will always be problems. We can thus see why Christ was seen as a heretic by the religious authorities of His day: that He, a Jew, one of the chosen people of God, should mingle and reach out to the unclean and the impure, is simply an aberration unheard of. The righteous are safe in the confines of heaven, and they take pleasure at the fact that they have been numbered among the elect. And so the outsiders remain proud and arrogant, and they begin to conceive their pleasure in warring against the saints and the Kingdom of God. What Our Lord did was to extend His hand to the dregs of society, tolerating, as it were, their uncouth ways; in the procession of the Black Nazarene, He is once again the ‘heretic’, providing a glimmer of hope to a populace who believes with the sweat of his brow and the quaking of his guts, because he has no other choice but to do so. It is in this sense that I say that this procession is anti-clerical: because it offers immediate, ‘worldly’ hope distinct from the supernatural hope that the clerical Church offers. It gives the simple the bread they need, in order that they may believe more fully.
The Church, because it is also a human institution while at the same time divine, will always have to face the problems of human existence. If She is the Mystical Body of Christ, then She must prepare to undergo the Passion as well: and no greater proof of this are our own times, which have seen a massive curtailing of Her institutional presence all over the world. The flock is straying, and even in predominantly Catholic Philippines, where religion still carries a very strong emotional connection, many are abandoning the faith in droves. I have seen this in my friends and even some relatives who have become deaf, it seems, to the voice of the Church, because it has become too wide and too ‘big’ to pay attention to the cries of the simple. I guess I am lucky, in that I have never had to face these confusions; Church teaching has always been clear cut to me, and defendable, at least on an intellectual level. But as I have told myself repeatedly, I am thankful that I do not have the unfortunate distinction of having been born into a position in which I simply cannot choose whether to follow the Church or not. I suspect many of the devotees of the Black Nazarene would not desire to join such a massive crowd and risk death year after year if they had the option; but as it stands, it is their Calvary to accompany Him in His passion, even if just in simulacrum.