The beat of the sun on his back as the sweat starts to drip down unto his brows, he sees the mass of hands, all rising to touch, grasping for even the tiniest bit. The crowd of people pushes harder and Ronaldo feels his lungs wheeze air from the tight squeeze. It’s suffocating. Murmuring a short prayer, he knows he’ll be alright. Lord, have mercy that no harm come to him. Ending it with a hopeful wish, the crowd parts as if the was wish granted. A tiny space barely there, but enough for Ronaldo to push through and carry on. And in that moment, he feels, from his eyes, the hot tears fall and hit the ground as he grips with his fingertips what his entire life had been about. The cruel, brutal procession is worth it, he thinks, for this exact glorious moment everyone in this crowd would give to have – the chance to touch the Black Nazarene. Exhausted, Ronaldo loses his grip, getting lost in the sea of bodies. Direct contact or not, the Lord knows he is faithful. Getting out of the crowd and going home, he will come again next year. Just like he always does.
Adoration or idolatry?
Only at the age of two months did Ronaldo’s father start attending the processions—getting caught into the push and pull at the front of the Quiapo church. The practice eventually became a family tradition and a staple event in Ronaldo’s life once he turned old enough. Now 46 years old, Ronaldo considers himself blessed from the sickness and harm that he has evaded for so long – his whole family intact and safe. His work and income stable, if not, rising. The faith of such devotees, epitomized and made tangible by the sole act of clasping their hands to pray to a statue in the likeness of their Lord.
“Ang mga [hinihingi] sa Kanya, nagkatotoo. ‘Di naman agad-agad pero dumadating. Basta tumawag ka sa Kanya, nandoon lang Siya,” Ronaldo explains, hands gesturing actions as his smile widens–the passion leaking out from his storytelling contagious.
(Everything I ask from Him, they come true. Not always at once. But if you call for Him, He is there.)
Although recognized by Catholics from all over the world, the tradition of the Black Nazarene continues to baffle the uninvolved and uninformed as they ponder over the mystic pull the caricature seems to have over a large number of people. The space fronting the Quiapo Church was never caught unoccupied on the 9th of January as devotees push and shoved in a crowd of profusely literal blood, sweat, and tears. Despite the numerous accounts of fainting, dehydration, and even deaths, the processions remain an event worthy to die for.
In defense of the Catholics
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” This is the battle cry of those who disagree with Catholicism’s worshipping of statues, and to an extent, support the non-believers of the Black Nazarene. It’s straightforward; Exodus 20:4 explicitly states that idolatry is not accepted.
On the other hand, Moses healed everyone who was dying from venom through his own man-made bronze snake in the Book of Numbers. Since then becoming a symbol of medicine and healing, the biblical anecdote of the Caduceus makes the contrast between these two ideas undeniable. What one passage says is completely against the other. With this inconsistency, the contradiction of two statements from the one ultimate source that is the Bible, according to theology professor Genaro Rondina, is the answer for those who remain skeptical.
“These particular biblical passages, they contradict with each other. The way to understand that is to have a reconciliation.” he explains.
This reconciliation rings clear to the Catholics as they hang up rosaries onto their dashboards, set up altars in the corners of their homes, and participate in processions such as the Black Nazarene’s. And that is, Rondina emphasizes as he points at his miniature plastic carving of St. La Salle, they do not worship crafted statues and figurines, but instead find solace in the feeling of connectedness these man-made objects give them.
“We go beyond the image, and in our deepest thinking, we know that it is God trying to reconnect. [We think], I hope You are here, talking to me, listening to me, somehow I try to imagine that You are in front.”
After all, religious or not, it is human nature to avoid the feeling of loneliness. There is comfort in knowing there is somebody out there for you, and this is exactly what the Black Nazarene and other worshipped images provide.
The cultural hand-me-down
As soon as one steps out of the Quiapo church, the pandemonium begins. Rows of vendors line up near the gates of the House of God and what they sell are not your typical prayer booklets and Sampaguitas. Instead, the vendors’ baskets are filled with different anting-antings and potions such as gayuma, while some offer services such as fortune telling.
It is ironic, yet, in the context of the Philippine culture, it makes sense. Before the Philippines was colonized by Spain and Christianity was introduced, ancient religions were prominent in the country. Somehow, these practices endured the colonization era until reaching our contemporary culture.
As paradoxical as it sounds, Rondina thinks it makes perfect sense. “It manifests how the Filipino culture is really embracing the Catholic religion without disregarding their own identity.”
From then on, Rondina theorizes that this hodge podge of two contrasting religions has been passed on from generation to generation. And this, he believes, is difficult to erase.
“Ang bata natuto yan sa magulang, nakalakihan niya yan. Hindi mo basta basta mabubura yan.” he says.
(A child learns from his or her parents; it is what he grows up to believe in and that is not easily erased.)
And so, whether the mystic of the Black Nazarene is a miracle or a mere correlation disguised as a causation, it is a perfect representation of our identity as Filipinos and it is not going to fade any time soon.
The January 9 countdown
Countless of stories have been told about the miracles and the mystique that surrounds the statue of the Black Nazarene. Illnesses had been healed, lives had been blessed, and prayers had been answered. Millions of Filipinos flock to Quiapo to catch a glimpse of this man-made statue that had been around since the 16th century.
From afar, one can hear bystanders laughing about the absurdity of this tradition; “How dogmatic and illogical” one would think. But people like Rolando and millions of other Filipinos who gather every 9th of January beg to differ.
Rondina explains this thoroughly as he goes through what is in a devotee’s mind during the procession: “Nagpasan ka ng hirap sa buhay hanggang kamatayan. Ako din, kung ano man paghihirap ko sa buhay pipilitin ko itong pasanin. Gusto kong marating ang marating mo. Gusto kong malagpasan ang nalagpasan mo.”
(You carry the burden of life until death. And so, whatever burden I have in my life, I will carry it. I want to go through what You’ve been through. I want to overcome what You overcame.)
From God’s perspective, Filipinos swarm like ants in yellow, reaching for something they truly need. As we look closer to examine, we can see the message very clearly, a sisyphean-esque metaphor that only devotees will truly understand.
As the sweat trickles down the sides of their faces, slippers slip off their feet, and body heat surround them as they push each other into getting closer to the dark-skinned image, they are making a statement, and in a way, creating an art form through expressing their faith.
And so, as Rolando wipes the feet of the Black Nazarene for the eighth year in a row, he sighs in satisfaction and counts down for the next January 9 to come.