"The challenge is aligning piety, prayer and practice."
Two depictions of the same Christ are commemorated yearly by Filipino Catholics in the month of January. The first is the icon of a man willing to embrace suffering and death. The second is an image of a young child clothed and portrayed as king. The first evokes resignation to pain and agony. The second affirms our filial relationship with God. Both, however, are powerful reminders of Christ who choose to become “a man like us in all things but sin.”
These thoughts come to my mind as the entire country marks the annual traslacion of the Black Nazarene on January 9, and the Sinulog on the third Sunday of January, honoring one of the oldest religious images in the country, the Santo Niño. While both are celebrated with intense devotion by millions of Catholics in Philippines, there is a significant difference in the manner by which these devotions are observed.
Both images were brought to these islands by Spanish missionaries. The Santo Niño is as old as Christianity in the Philippines itself. The original image, presently venerated in Cebu was given was a gift from Ferdinand Magellan to Humamay, the consort of Raja Humabon, as a token of her baptism to the Catholic faith. On the other hand, the image of the Black Nazarene is a mute witness to the political and economic ties that once connected Manila and Mexico. Carved by an unknown Mexican sculptor, this life-size image of Christ was first enshrined in the Augustinian Recollect church of Saint John the Baptist in Bagumbayan, then brought to the Recollect church in Intramuros —only to be transferred in 1787 from Intramuros to its present-day shrine at the Quiapo Church.
This historical traslacion—or the transfer of the image from Intramuros to Quiapo—is what Filipino Catholics commemorate year after year on January 9. This explains why the feast appears to be out of sync with the Church’s liturgical calendar, which at this time of the year has just completed its joyous celebration of Christmas. In fact, there are several misconceptions about this supposed feast of the Black Nazarene. First, that liturgical feast proper to the Nazarene actually falls on Good Friday, the penultimate day of the Holy Week. Second, that contrary to what many believe, the image is actually brought out of the Church in procession three times in a year.
On the other hand, the celebration of the Santo Niño has now been incorporated into the local liturgical calendar, a concession particularly given to the Church in the Philippines. It has been said before that the feast of the Santo Niño actually completes the weeks of festivities that began with Christmas. In fact, it is only in our country that the feast of the Santo Niño is observed, whereas at the same time of the year, Catholic churches abroad would then be observing the beginning of the Ordinary Time.
These feasts honoring Christ, both as fully grown man and as newborn infant, are strong marks of our identity as Filipino Catholics. While images of the infant Jesus and the Nazarene can be found in many parts of the world, the unparalleled intensity and passion that accompany these traditional devotions are unique to the Philippines, one that many people find it difficult to understand.
In fact, both celebrations have often been criticized by many within and outside the Church as bordering on idolatry. Admittedly so, the external aspects of these feasts – the throngs of millions who risk getting injured or caught in a stampede just to touch the image of the Nazarene, or the thousands who “dance in prayer” for hours as an offering to Santo Niño – often overshadow the inner significance of the mysteries of faith that these icons denote.
There are two realizations that I have made as I reflect on the “traslacion” and the Santo Niño. First is the simplicity and sincerity of the Filipino faith. Many of those who come to Quiapo or Cebu do so in the hope of a miracle or a favor from God. There are some who keep returning every year to fulfill a “panata” as a sign of gratitude for an answered prayer. In a way, what you see – even the intensity bordering on fanaticism – is what the faith of the ordinary Filipino Catholic really is, one that is deeply imbued in the human experience to the point that becomes our instinctive nature to seek God in our pain and illness and in our tragedy and poverty. This could be the reason why many are quick to misjudge the piety of the devotees, without fully understanding the unique spirituality of Filipinos. In the suffering of the “Nazareno,” we find the underlying reason for our own pains, hopeful that we would receive the healing that we desire. In the simplicity of the Santo Niño, we find confidence that God always looks after his children, and thus he is not oblivious to the ordinary cares and concerns of our everyday lives.
Secondly, these two devotions also unmask the paradox of the Filipino Catholic experience. On these two feast days, people go out of their way to manifestly express their faith, but for the rest of the year, many of them stay away from Sunday mass. This reinforces the obvious dichotomy between Filipino Catholic piety and practice. For example, it is sad to be reminded that in one of the only two Catholic countries in Asia, corruption is almost an accepted culture. Many of us have become fixated on our own selfish gain, for us to be any more concerned for creation and for the community. Too often than not, our daily lives and choices run counter to the faith we claim to profess.
The challenge, therefore, is how to align piety, prayer and practice. Imagine if we had the same optimism in God’s goodness, as the faith we have in our own capacity to be better and the respect that we have for the people we live and work with. Think of how much untapped potential there is in us as a people, and the promise of what we can achieve as a nation, if as a family of faith, our resolve do good for others and the wider community will measure up to the intensity of our devotion to the Nazarene and to the Santo Niño. If with the same sincerity and simplicity of our religious practices, we could only allow the Gospel to influence and permeate our society, affording peace, progress and justice for every Filipino.
Santo Niño, bato-balani sa gugma, panalipdi kami.