Popular piety: The Black Nazarene

January 11, 2019

LAST Wednesday ( January 9, 2019), we celebrated the annual feast day of the Black Nazarene whereby millions of devotees gathered to celebrate their devotion to the historical and iconic miraculous statue of Jesus Christ carrying his cross. They took part in the spectacular religious procession known locally as the “Traslacion,” during which devotees carry a replica of the statue across Manila.

According to Msgr. Jose Clemente Ignacio (former Rector of the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene popularly known as Quiapo Church) “Traslacion” means the transfer of the image of Black Nazarene. In a way it is imitating the Calvary experience: the sacrifice and suffering that our Lord endured for our salvation like when Jesus was walking barefoot, carrying the cross to Mount Calvary.  The devotees also want to give back to God by participating in the suffering of our Lord and entering into the Paschal mystery of Christ.

A first group of Augustinian Recollect missionaries landed in Manila in 1606 from Mexico. They brought with them a dark image of Jesus Christ kneeling on one knee and carrying a large wooden cross. The image was first enshrined in St. John the Baptist Church at Luneta in 1606 and after two years was moved to a bigger church nearby. Over a century and a half later, in 1767, the image was transferred to Quiapo Church whose patron is also St. John the Baptist.  Last 2006 the parish celebrated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the image of Black Nazarene in Manila.

So what makes this devotion to the Black Nazarene such a sociological and pastoral phenomenon?  At its core, such devotion comes from a deep rooted personal experience with the divine whereby a pilgrim undergoes a direct experience of the sacred, either in the material aspect of miraculous healing & acquisition of various temporal needs or in the immaterial aspect of inward transformation of spirit and personality. Popular piety or “people’s spirituality” is present in practically all cultures and religions; it draws ordinary people to prayer and worship, popular devotions and religious festivals.

Experiencing such “Fragments of Eternity” allows a devotee to undergo a wonderful experience to be cleansed, to be one with other devotees (faith experience sharing), to get in touch with the divine and to experience “heaven” even for a short period of time.  And from such a religious experience evolves the concept of “PANATA” (vow or promise) to which devotees and pilgrims would repeatedly comeback to renew this spiritual encounter because such a devotion opens up “heaven” for a pilgrim’s chance to once again experience the divine and to manifests one’s disposition to receive the imprint of the sacred in one’s life.

Using therefore this frame of thinking we begin to understand the other rituals associated with the devotion to the Black Nazarene, which includes: The Pahalik (kissing of the statues, Pasindi (lighting of multi-colored candles outside of the church), Padasal (from the Mandarasals or the priests), Pabihis (the changing of the garments of the Black Nazarene), Pabendision (sprinkling of Holy Water after masses or the kissing of the hands of the priests), Pahawak (touching of the statues or the garments of the Black Nazarene), Pamisa (Mass Offerings), Pagnonobena (Novena prayers or masses), Pagpasan (Carrying of the wood of the carroza or the rope attached to it), Pagyayapak (walking barefoot during processions), and Paglalakad ng Paluhod (processing to the altar on bended knees) as meaningful symbols of awe, reverence and dedication for the cleansing, healing, joy and sense of bonding (being one with other devotees) encountered through their devotion to the Black Nazarene.

The Filipinos devotion to the Black Nazarene is such a rich “faith experience” but at the end of the day FAITH and FORMATION must go hand-in-hand lest this popular religiosity becomes mere fanaticism.  Popular piety tends towards the irrational and can at times be somewhat superficial but with proper education and formation can be our faith’s greatest treasure.  “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth -- in a word, to know himself -- so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves” (Saint John Paul II).

To grow in our understanding of the faith through our devotion to the Black Nazarene means to make it more meaningful, more deeply grasped and more real in our lives.  Many devotees in Quiapo and those who appear once a year during the processions need to find opportunities to be formed in the faith in order to fully appreciate, understand and intellectually process their faith experience.  The Greek rendering of the Hebrew word for “strength” in Matthew 22:35 is “mind,” and it means literally “deep thought or understanding.” So this greatest of Old Testament commandments demands loving God not only with emotions and zeal, but also with one’s mind and intellect.

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