Every 9th of January, the Philippine church celebrates the feast of the Black Nazarene. Thousands of replicas of the of the Nazarene is paraded throughout different places in the country but one of them stands out among the others – that of the image of the Black Nazarene enshrined in Quiapo church.
But first, what is the Black Nazarene? It is a life-sized, dark wooden image of the suffering Christ carrying his cross in behalf of fallen humanity. It is the image of Christ during his passion and on his way to Calvary. The image is believed to be miraculous by many Filipinos. Originally, the image was not dark but fair complexioned. But as it was transported from Mexico to the Philippines, the ship that carried it caught fire and the image though not totally consumed was charred by the flames. It became dark. The Black Nazarene is publicly processed on three occasions: New Year’s Day, Good Friday and January 9. Of these three occasions, it is on January 9 that people crowd the streets often in frenzied atmosphere.
As what I’ve said earlier, what makes the Black Nazarene of the Quiapo church stand out among the others? Because only in Quiapo do throngs of people gather in order to follow the procession. We are not talking here of hundreds or thousands but millions of people and just recently approximately 9 million devotees followed the translacion or the transfer of the image to the Quiapo church. During the procession, people would vie to touch or get a hold of the rope which connects to the andas. An ocean of people would push their way just to get a closer glimpse of the Nazarene. The men on the other hand, would push hard in order to get the chance to carry the rope in their right shoulder – as it is the side people believed Christ carried his cross. While people are shoving their way into the procession, devotees would throw their handkerchiefs to the image’s marshals clad in yellow shirt for them to wipe it on the image as people often associate miracles to it. If one is to see the whole milieu sans the eyes of faith, one cannot avoid looking at these people with disdain.
In fact, many people did look at them with disdain. One writer would even refer to the crowd as collective fools. And in national newspapers, many writers would even deprive them of holiness and instead accuse them of insanity. But just to set things straight, who are we to boast of our holiness and pin them with insanity? What difference exists between their insanity and our insanity? After all, in God’s eyes we are all sinners. What power do we have to look into their hearts and what authority do we have to judge them with our eyes? Didn’t Jesus refuse to judge the woman caught in adultery? The fact is, our search for holiness would often appear insane to the eyes of the world. The world cannot understand why people are willing to walk barefoot amidst the grueling heat of the not-so-well-paved road, why people are willing to stand for even a day waiting for the Nazarene to pass by, why people in tattered clothes would forget their poverty for a day in order to enjoy the richness of God’s presence, why people who have been sinners for a year would cease to be so in a day, why people who suffered for so many years would not budge to hope in God, and why people who appeared feeble in countenance would find the strength to follow the procession all the way even when midnight comes. To the world it’s foolishness, but to the one who believes it’s holiness. As what Cardinal Tagle had said, only the devotees know what is in their hearts as they do these things. We who don’t have the power to search their hearts could only look at them with wonder.
But talking of insanity, here’s the catch. Even the prophets of Old Testament times had their share of expressing their faith even to the verge of what the world might call insanity. The prophet Isaiah walked barefoot for three years predicting a forthcoming captivity in Egypt (Isaiah 20:2-3), per instruction of God the prophet Ezekiel ate bread baked on cow dung instead of human waste (Ezekiel 4:9-15), and King David himself leapt and danced before the Lord naked – when Michal saw her in such form she despised him in her heart. When Saint Francis felt the need to give up all worldly cares stripped all of his clothes and stood naked in front of the crowd and Saint Basil who in order to shame the rich went around naked and weighed himself in chains. No wonder they are called the Holy Fools!
Insanity – but is it? There are only things the not-so-holy and the so-much-holy could never understand. For us, faith is not just an article to be scanned once in a while in our books. Faith needs to be expressed. And for many the streets, not just the church, are one of those avenues to express such faith. But the faith which one hears only from instruction or practiced only individually is the faith meant for the well-off , the poor who miss or who cannot afford instruction cling on to extreme hope which they find in the suffering Christ whose image they can associate with. They discover such faith even without instruction and they continue to express that faith through their fervent devotion.
But what about the handkerchiefs? What has God to do with the towels and handkerchiefs? As one can see them flying around while being tossed to the image of the Black Nazarene, some with critical minds couldn’t help asking if this is warranted by biblical example. To answer such concern, one only has to look at the life of Saint Paul. When he passed by Ephesus during his missionary journey, he performed miracles among the people there, driving out demons and even the handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and their evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11-12) And does it add up to insanity? Hardly, if one has to look at the example of Saint Paul.
And what about the charge that the occasion is just for frenzy since some devotees still sin after the feast? The truth is, there are people who join the feast just for fun, but who are we to deprive them of the once-in-a-year opportunity to seek God just because they could sin thereafter? Didn’t King David after dancing before the Lord fell to sin when he saw Bathsheba? But that does not mean that we abandon our devotion altogether just because sin could still lurk behind us. When St. Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother, Jesus did not answer seven times but seventy times seven times which means unlimited forgiveness. The fact is, the more we sin the more we need to come to God. And who are we to stop them from coming to God?
Not even the charge of insanity could stop the holy from being foolish for Christ. Who would consider it sane for God the Son to die in the hands of His creation, or for God the Son to carry the cross created by his creation? Insanity – isn’t it?
But indeed, “We are fools for Christ…!” (1 Corinthians 4:10)