The Nazareno feast: Ritual and identity

This year’s staging of a Philippine Roman Catholic religious rite drew comments from around the world for allegedly being a spectacle of superstitious and barbaric behavior after many participants were injured.

Shouting “¡Viva Señor Jesus Nazareno!” an estimated 1.5 million devotees thronged around the Itim na Poong Nazareno—the Black Nazarene—last Jan. 9 as it was processed around Manila streets from Quirino Grandstand to Quiapo Church, its home.

People, many of them barefoot, pushed and shoved against each other as they threw handkerchiefs or washcloths at guardians of the image for them to wipe against the statue and its cross. The centuries-old statue of the Poón (Lord) is believed to have healing and wish-granting powers.

The Philippine Red Cross alone treated 2,235 patients as of 3:30 in the morning of Jan. 10 for minor injuries, dizziness, high blood pressure, and other ailments.

The annual event, called Traslación (literally ‘translation’, in this context meaning ‘transfer’) commemorates the sending in 1787 of a copy of the original statue from Recoletos Church inside the walled city of Intramuros to what is now Quiapo Church. The original statue, carved by an unknown artist in Mexico from mesquite wood and sent over by galleon in 1606, was burned in a fire during the Liberation of Manila in 1945.

Devotion to the Nazareno is often the fulfillment of a panata—vow. The devotee promises to perform an act in worship of the Nazareno—to walk the traslación, or to carry the statue as a namamasán or bearer—as thanks for a petition granted or a favor rendered, such as the healing of a sick family member.

The vow is also expected among some to be borne by members of the family. “Lito”, 70, says his father, a horseracing jockey, participated in the rite almost every year, and Lito began accompanying his father when he was old enough to be trusted to take care of himself amongst the throng. He continued the rite each year up until a few years ago, when he grew too frail.

Detractors call the worship unsafe and dangerous, impractical and inconvenient, and a form of idolatry.

Monsignor Jose Clemente Ignacio of Quiapo Church said in response to the latter, “I guess the view behind that question isn’t really Filipino. Filipinos are people of the concrete. It is a Filipino trait to want to wipe, touch, kiss, or embrace sacred objects if possible. We Filipinos believe in the presence of the divine in sacred objects and places.”

Here we have the explanation for this phenomenon—it is a Filipino thing. Beyond a religious rite, it is a cultural tradition, performed over centuries until it has reified into the extravagant display of faith and belief that it is today.

James Carey’s ritual view of communication addresses events of this nature by looking at their purpose. They are a way to communicate shared beliefs that connect the community. “Communication” and “community” stem from the same root “communis.” Thus, “in a ritual definition, communication is linked to terms such as sharing, participation, association, fellowship, and the possession of a common faith” (Carey).

It isn’t so much that information is imparted at the moment in that particular space, but rather over time. Rather than sermons (information), prayers are highlighted, because everyone knows what is to be done along the route of the parade. Participation in the sacred ceremony also shapes identity and confers a sense of belonging among its devotees, in a process of social integration.

Ritual communication is culturally biased, so this leads to ethnocentric problems—not everyone shares the same beliefs, so there are those who will be offended by the acts performed at the event—leading to the negative comments about the way the Traslación is conducted.

Because it is a religious rite, and because it is a cultural tradition and a legacy of hundreds of years of practice, the Traslación is not something that can just be banned without a huge public outcry. Rather, the steps taken by the local and national governments to try to keep everyone safe and impose some order upon the conduct of the event are the best that can be done under the circumstances.

The Traslación, while a superstitious and barbaric display to some, is also a uniquely Filipino custom. And for at least a day, it allows a pious people to express their intense fervor and devotion within a community that has kept this tradition alive for centuries.

Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook:  Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember

Topics: Jenny Ortuoste , The Nazareno feast , Ritual and identity , Philippine Roman Catholic , Black Nazarene , Traslación
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