This Sunday the Church in the Philippines distinguishes itself once again with the feast of the Sto. Niño, a devotion that not only is typically Filipino, but that which is at the very core of the people’s identity and history as a Christian nation (here, as a parenthetical observation, despite of a certain percentage of Muslims and of the fact that the majority of the archipelago’s pre-colonial inhabitants were animists, it could never be said that in any point of its history was the Philippines an Islamic nor an animistic nation. The evangelization wrought by the missionaries of the Spanish Crown was a big factor in the building up of our identity as a nation; where there were petty kingdoms scattered throughout the archipelago, the colonization brought about a cohesive unity between the islands under the Cross and the Crown). No doubt by this time, millions of devotees and revelers have congregated at what could be the centermost metropolis of the Visayas—denominated the Queen City of the South—Cebu, both out of devotion to the Holy Child Jesus, whose image was the first Christian image to be revered in this part of the Far East, and also to celebrate in what has become the Philippine’s answer to Mardi Gras of Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. This multitudinous gathering comes almost a week after another one done as well during the first week of the year, though this one is marked more by devotion not lacking in fanaticism than by a reason for celebrating. This Monday’s feast of the Black Nazarene of Quiapo was marked by the usual confluence of millions jostling in order to touch the 17th century image (a remnant of trade relations by way of galleons between Manila and Mexico) with their handkerchiefs and towels in the belief of its healing powers, while accompanying it in a procession that lasted fourteen hours. The annual feast and its highlight—the grand procession back to its normal place in the Basilica of Quiapo—was celebrated amidst reports of a possible terrorist attack, one which the President himself made out in a rare press conference made before the date. This didn’t even make a dent in the devotees faith, resolved to fulfill their yearly panata or personal vow. Urged on by their resolve and personal need, the same millions braved the annual pandemonium around the carriage that bears the darkened image of the Savior on the way to Calvary.
The proximity of both feasts calls my attention as we celebrate another feast that is typically Filipino, and this I mean in two ways: in the first place, liturgically speaking, because both are rarities, and from a foreign point of view, one that could not be easily understood. Secondly, both as images and devotions they give us a view of what the identity of the Filipino Christian is all about.
Regarding to the first point, refering to the Black Nazarene, as a liturgical feast it stands out like a sore thumb, having just ended the Christmas season days before (this year, it was celebrated on the day where in some part of the Latin Church people were ending Christmas with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord). The feast of the Sto. Niño could raise some foreign liturgical eyebrows for the same reason, now that Christmas had ended. Secondly, it is truly Filipino because of the significance it has in the nation’s history. As I had pointed out earlier, among the numerous images venerated by Catholics in the Philippines, that of the Holy Child of Cebu is certainly the first that came to the islands, and consequently, not only is it the oldest, but certainly its devotion is among the most widespread among the Filipino people; at par with the Sinulog celebration in Cebu we have the Ati-atihan of Iloilo and the Pintados-Kasadyaan of Tacloban (the Sangyaw of the same city is a very recent invention). As historical records would tell us, the image was arrived to these islands as a gift made out to the premier wife of Humabon of Cebu by Ferdinand Magellan during the first expedition in march 1521. This first encounter between the Spaniards and the natives (which was to end tragically, for the Spaniards at least), though not enough to plant the Cross and the Christian faith firmly upon this part of Asia, was nevertheless the seed that was to grow with the evangelization of the islands, a movement that coincided with its political subjugation under Spanish rule, which was to last for three hundred years, form 1565 until 1898, the year that signaled the end of the Spanish colonial era. One merit of the this colonial rule was the unification of the islands under one government; where there was once a group of islands with petty kingdoms, the evangelization and colonization of what became las islas Filipinas under the Spanish crown brought about the a unified conscience, that was to grow and mature under the American administration, interrupted for two years during the Second World War with the Japanese Occupation.
The Image of the Nazarene, Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, came in the midst of a prosperous era marked by trade relations between Manila and Mexico. Ships would ply the route from the Spanish port in Asia—Manila—laden with goods destined for markets in Nueva Castilla (Mexico) and the old world. The same galleons would return from the other end in Acapulco back to Manila laden with Mexican silver and other goods. In one of those trips came the image of the Nazarene. No, better still, one could talk of images since there were two of them. I won’t elaborate on this here though, as I would be digressing from my point.
Both the images and the devotion that Filipinos have towards these representation of Jesus Christ in two instances of his life—both as a child and as a grown man, could say something about their spiritual life as a people. I have long wondered about the devotion that my people have towards the Sto. Niño and the Nazareno, a devotion that is seconded only by the Filipino’s love for the Mother of God (the Philippines, to use a well-known phrase, is a nation in love with Mary, un pueblo amante de María, and its love affair with the Virgin is as interesting as its strong devotion to the ones highlighted in this present reflection).
In the first place, I could well say that these January devotions reflect how the Filipino sees himself in relation to God. With regards to the Holy Child, the Filipino has always known himself to be small before God, a child in the arms of his Father. Without prejudice to people of other nationalities, I could say that the Filipino is instinctively religious. Of course religion as a human phenomenon could be given in man himself, but the Filipino has no qualms in praying in public; given the circumstances, he is at home with the spiritual, and this spirituality is one that is trusting, a spirituality in which surrender to the higher power occupies an important part. The Pinoy is accustomed to living surrounded by children, and is quite fond of them; anyway, who isn’t fond of a cute baby? The country’s population is relatively young, a promising one that could yield a veritable workforce, given the chance. Just as a child is desirable and lovable in the eyes of its parent, the Filipino, seeing himself as a child, also knows himself to be loved, and this love is that which makes him strong, even in the darkest of times, even in the midst of suffering. There is never any doubt that the Filipino finds his strength in hard times surrounded by his family and those who care for him most; however, one source of strength that he can dispose of as well is prayer, drawing from those deep spiritual reserves that find its roots in his Christian faith.
Speaking of suffering, everybody would agree that the present generation of Filipinos had never known a period of bonanza or prosperity as such; each turn of history would seem worse than the last. Philippine contemporary history, either lived out individually or as a nation, seems to pass from one crisis to another. The image of the Black Nazarene seems to be the incarnation of the image of the suffering Filipino himself; better still, I could say that the Filipino is able to recognize himself in the image of the suffering Savior on the way to Calvary, which is perhaps the reason why there he has so much devotion to the suffering Christ. This identification with the Nazarene, carrying the Cross on the way to Calvary, is perhaps the reason that lies at the root of its attraction for the Filipino.
The Black Nazarene is the image of a God who is never from the situation of those who suffer, never distant because he shares their suffering, and manifests it for all to see.
But there is another reason for its being attractive: though suffering and the perspective of certain death is evident in the black face of the Savior, within this sign, we might say, there is the glimmer of the final victory. The Filipino, though suffering and being accustomed to it, knows and recognizes the transient nature of suffering, and foresees in a certain manner the glory of the Resurrection. He knows that suffering will cease, and that life still goes on. This is something that lies at the heart of the Filipino psyche; this is the reason for the Filipino’s ability to smile, laugh and celebrate despite of the bad times; ever a musical people, Filipinos are known to express their pain even in singing, as they do in times of joy. This is the reason of the Filipino’s affinity to telenovelas, which show the long-suffering of the innocent protagonist, whose story always culminates in triumph.
The profound reason perhaps why these devotions have so much popularity among the Filipino people is because they see themselves associated with Christ himself. When the devotee gazes at the obscure face of the Christ bearing the Cross, he does not only see his own pain, he also sees his own resurrection. In the same way, when he celebrates and dances with the image of the Infant in his hands, he sees himself as a child loved by God, one who would never abandon him to his fate, as a popular religious Filipino song would say (hindi kita pababaya-an).
One last thing that this reveals about Filipino Christian religiosity is that it is Christological and Christ-centered. All of this identification with Christ that I’ve been talking about, about how Christ shows who and what God is, and how Christ shows man about man himself—these point to the fact that Filipino Christianity is in the right route. There is a lot of purification to do, of course, there is no doubt about this, the experience of the procession and the fanaticism of many of the Nazarene’s devotees are proof of that, but I guess that deep within, the Filipino has grasped one central concept of Christology, which is that of the Incarnation. This is one concept in which through the person of Jesus Christ, man is able to see and know—and even touch and caress—that who and which the invisible God is. Also, in the face of Christ, man is able to know more about who he truly is. In the case of the Filipino devotee, both in the Sto. Niño and in the Black Nazarene, he sees a God who has come down to man so as to be embraced and carried, in whom he knows himself to be loved and cherished. Here he realizes that he is not alone in his suffering, and that, despite of the darkness of the times, the gloom is not enough to snuff out the flame of hope that would inevitably lead to the bright day of the Resurrection.