Nazareno devotion: Fervor or fanaticism?

January 08, 2019

The Philippines’ biggest spectacle of the Catholic faith unfolds today, January 9, during the Feast of the Black Nazarene when a multitude of devotees at the Traslacion go into a frenzy that seemingly defies logic.

But it’s only God who really knows what’s in the hearts of devotees whose frenzied behavior bewilders many who watch the yearly spectacle on TV as the Nazarene carriage inches its way from Luneta to the Quiapo Church in a perilous journey where people have been crushed to death in the past.

Such behavior might look irrational or outright fanatical, yet could devotees be faulted for their overzealousness in seeking favors or deliverance from abysmal despair? Should they be mocked for expressing the valued Filipino trait of “utang na loob” for answered prayers?

Some behavioral experts attribute the frenzy during Traslacion to the Filipinos’ concept of imitating Christ, of having to undergo suffering to avail of His mercy.

But should intense desire to avail of God’s mercy justify all the frenzy? Or, to put it another way, does the frenzy make one avail of His mercy?

To grasp what fuels the communal ecstasy and intensity of devotion to the Black Nazarene, we might be enlightened by the story in the Holy Bible (Luke 7:36-50) of “a sinful woman who wets with her tears, wipes with her hair, and pours expensive fragrance on the feet of Jesus who tells her: ‘Your sins are forgiven; your faith has saved you.’”

Trying to comprehend the local term “Awa ng Diyos” could shed light on the purpose and reasons for our existence, and why blessings arrive at various stages in our lives, despite all our sinfulness that ought to make us unworthy.

But Church officials insist dying needlessly at the frenzied Traslacion is not the sacrifice our loving God demands from a devoted follower immersing in what secularists dismiss as a “showcase of fanaticism and mindless belief.” Some even say that shunning something as basic as safety is not martyrdom, but plain stupidity.

In the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno Hymn which every ardent devotee knows, National Artist Lucio San Pedro put in the lyrics: “Sinasamba Ka namin, pinipintuho Ka namin, aral Mo’y aming buhay at kaligtasan.” Indeed, every time we sing the hymn, we proclaim to our Father Jesus Nazarene that “we worship Thee, we admire Thee; Thy teachings are our life and salvation.”

But none of Christ’s teachings tell devotees to act rudely, wildly, crazily over His wooden image and exhibit “macho fanaticism, misplaced revelry and unnecessary risks that have become a popular but deeply-flawed measure of piety.”

His teachings are on humility and patience—which explain why most devotees are barefoot and why many of us endure long hours of queuing for the Pahalik, that fleeting moment we get to touch the foot of Christ’s black statue.

If indeed “Thy teachings are our life and salvation” as the hymn goes, why then do many devotees show their faith like a badge—proudly, yet recklessly, and put themselves and fellow devotees at great risk of injury or even death, when God’s teachings do not require such?

“We remain fixated with icons, with the physical representations than the meanings behind them.  We struggle to get the rituals right in order to avoid bad luck, while showing little discipline, if any, in the daily practice of a virtuous life,” a sociologist said.

Does such fixation explain the frantic need to elbow one’s way and leap over others in trying to mount the Nazarene carriage on a particular day when the statue is accessible all-year-round at Quiapo Church? Is the frenzy merely a display of religious fervor or is it raw fanaticism?