By Manny Villar
In a world of modernity, materialism, and technological advances, some find it difficult to comprehend people’s devotion to religion and spirituality.
Every January, here in the Philippines, we showcase two important religious events that highlight the Filipinos’ faith and devotion. I am referring to the procession of the Black Nazarene, which is known as the “traslacion” and happens every 9th of January, and the Feast of Santo Niño de Tondo every third Sunday of January.
The “traslacion” is but a culmination of a nine-day novena held all over the country by devotees that starts December 31. The Catholic Church estimates that up to 18 million Filipinos take part in the annual procession and the festivities that surround it.
This year the police estimated the crowd to be well over 6 million. But this is only during the “traslacion,” the procession commemorating the statue’s transfer from Intramuros to Quiapo Church in 1787. That estimate does not include the other events surrounding the procession.
The feast of Santo Niño de Tondo does not attract that kind of multitude but it is the biggest and most anticipated fiesta celebration in Metro Manila. It is also very close to my heart; and the Santo Niño de Tondo church is very near to our old house in Tondo.
The feast is part of a nationwide celebration consisting of various fiestas and festivals — the Sinulog in Cebu, theDinagyang in Iloilo, the Ati-Atihan in Aklan and of course, the Santo Niño de Tondo festival, which usually begins with the Lakbayaw, a procession that draws thousands of devotees, pilgrims, and revelers from Tondo and other cities and provinces.
I remember being astonished at the very colorful procession and the many statues of the Santo Niño being paraded. Some depict the child Jesus as policeman, fire fighter, and “taho” vendor. The statues are mounted on colorful and flower-adorned floats while people in the procession chant and dance.
I grew up in Tondo and I remember the frenzy and the anticipation of the days leading to the fiesta. We would attend novena masses, make sure that our houses — big or small — are made beautiful and clean, cook food — simple or extravagant, there were a lot of singing contests, beauty pageants and other events.
So what is the root of Filipino devotion to the Black Nazarene and the Santo Niño? What explains the fervent faithfulness of Filipinos? Both of them are rooted in our nation’s history.
The statue of the Black Nazarene was said to have been brought to the Philippines from Mexico by Augustinian missionaries in 1606. The Poong itim na Nazareno is a life-sized statue of a suffering Jesus fallen under the weight of the cross.
The Santo Niño on the other hand depicts the Child Jesus. The original icon was said to have been brought by a Portuguese explorer in 1521, which also marks our conversion to Christianity. Devotees revere the Santo Niño for miracles and answered prayers in the form of healing sickness and good health, financial blessing, and protection. I also think the Child Jesus represents hope and our collective vision of a bright future.
The same is true with the Nazareno. Devotees believe that the statue is miraculous. We have heard amazing stories of devotees or their loved ones getting cured from terminal diseases after praying to the Black Nazarene. But I also think that the larger part of that devotion is an identification with the suffering of Christ as depicted in the statue — which is now just a composite replica of the 1606 original.
The Black Nazarene, in many ways, represents the passion, struggle and faith of Filipino Catholics. Many devotees of the Poong Nazareno relate their poverty and daily challenges in their existential lives to what the image of the Nazareno represents–Christ’s own suffering.
Devotion to the Nazareno and the Santo Niño are proclamations of the faith of the Filipinos. The faith that with prayers, devotion and by acting out that faith through sacrifice and good deeds, they can overcome all difficulties.
At a time when millions of people would line up for hours to get the new iPhone model or elbow others just to get first crack at holiday sales in department stores, the sight of millions of Filipinos professing their faith to Christ is truly magnificent to behold.