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What? Our annual spectacle of superstition declared a holiday?

You are currently viewing What? Our annual spectacle of superstition declared a holiday?

I’M convinced that we are a country so deeply infused in religious superstition of the worst kind spread by the Catholic Church that it is one reason for our underdevelopment.

There is no developed country in the world that has such an annual spectacle of superstition encouraged by the opportunistic Catholic Church, attended by hundreds of thousands of people, even 5 million in 2015.

I refer to the erroneously named “Feast of the Black Nazarene*,” a procession held every January 9, in which a purportedly miraculous 17th-century wooden image of Jesus Christ in kingly robes carrying the crucifix, which myth says was used to kill him, is brought from the Quirino Grandstand in Luneta (which the previous day had been brought without fanfare to that site for “devotees” to kiss its feet) to the Quiapo Church, its “home.”

Religions love crowds. The Black Nazarene procession (top photo, from CBCP); Muslims at their Kaaba in Mecca (from Al-Jazeera).

The main reason why so many attend the annual mammoth, dangerously crowded procession is their belief that the image, if an attendee touches it with his handkerchief or just the carriage that carries it, will either bestow the believer whatever material thing he wishes for or will be forgiven for the vilest crime. I can’t forget a participant’s reply several years ago when asked by a TV reporter why he had been such a “devotee”: “The first time I joined, I earned enough money that year to buy a Tamaraw FX. Next year, I got a Revo. This year, I’m hoping to buy a Fortuner.”

Procession

That means the procession doesn’t have anything really to do with religion, that set of beliefs that an all-powerful, merciful God exists, inspiring men (or requiring, on penalty of suffering in the afterlife ) to do good to their fellowmen.

The Black Nazarene is just like the ancient graven images of the Sumerian Inanna, the Egyptian Osiris, the Iranians’ Mithra, the Aztecs’ Huitzilopochtli, the many gods in the Greek pantheon, to which a believer prays to be given a boon.

What made this particular statue “magical” was the fake news that it miraculously survived a fire in the Spanish galleon that brought it from Mexico, which explains the image’s black — i.e., burned — skin. The reality is that it was carved out of the dark mesquite wood common in South America and that the Spanish conquistadores invented a black-skinned Jesus Christ to make their conversion of the people of Mesoamerica into Christianity easier.

Writer and formerly Mexico-based Gemma Cruz Araneta, in a column, claimed the “Black Christ” was “evolved” from the Aztecs’ black-skinned god of commerce Yacatecuhtli. The Spanish conquistadores also transformed the Mayans’ black-skinned Ek Chuaj, also known as Ek-Kampulá, into the Black Christ to make it easier to convert the natives to Christianity. The Spanish missionaries cleverly introduced in 1595 its statue of the Black Christ in Esquipalas, which had been the sacred site of Ek Chuaj. The Spanish, thus, very successfully confused the Mayans that the god of their civilization was really Christianity’s Christ.

Media

That media and the intellectual and political elite do not criticize this annual practice for its gross superstition — what rational person would believe an old statue can give one a boon, just like Aladdin’s genie? — is another testament to the fact that this country’s supposedly modernizing elites have failed the nation and have been contributors to maintaining our backward culture.

It was indeed a disappointment for the leader of the nation, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., to declare January 9 as a “special non-working holiday” in Manila to “mark the celebration of the Feast of the Black Nazarene.” He is the first president ever to declare this Catholic event as a holiday. Not even the very religious Cory Aquino dared to do that. It’s even technically erroneous: although the event is popularly known as the “Feast of the Black Nazarene,” that day is set by the Church to be on Good Friday.

Then Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada did declare January 9 a non-working holiday in 2014, but only, he claimed, because the procession made several thoroughfares impassable. Is Marcos feeling desperate that he’s fast losing his political support, that he’s gone out to woo the Catholic “faithful”?

Even newspapers run what could be “trailers” for the event to whip up interest in the ritual, as in the case of this publication, which had a silly huge front-page photo of a little girl looking as if in worship at a small image of the Black Nazarene as she waited in line to kiss the feet of the life-size statute.

Nazarene

The Black Nazarene crowd has become much bigger over the years. I don’t think this is because of a resurgence of faith, but because the media each year have glorified the event more and more, reporting celebrities as devout followers of the Black Nazarene and uncritically mentioning as fact devotees’ claims of miracles and prayers answered — encouraging more and more people to join the procession. I don’t remember when, but then Vice President (or senator) Noli de Castro, a famous TV broadcaster, was interviewed on TV in the white T-shirt and red trousers that devotees typically wear, just before he joined the procession, which he claimed he has been doing for many years. Just 10 years ago, the procession was a minor story, given just a 3- or 5-minute coverage on TV news. It is now the main news story, with at least 30 minutes of airtime devoted to it, including scores of interviews with participants. Or maybe Filipinos are getting so desperate about their lives that more and more are clinging to superstition?

The yearly Black Nazarene procession, participated in by at least hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, is considered by religious Catholics as another proof of God’s existence and the correctness of the Catholic faith. “How could so many be wrong in their devotion?” they ask. More importantly, participants themselves report experiencing ecstasy, even religious enlightenment, just by joining the procession and suffering from being nearly compressed out of air in the packed crowd.

There are, however, deep cultural and psychological reasons for this that have nothing to do with the supernatural.

Such a phenomenon involving millions of devotees packed in one place for religious worship that they risk life and limb is common in India, Iraq and Islamic countries to celebrate events of what are really more backward religions than Christianity.

Hindu

The Hindu event held every three years called the Khumb Mela, held along the banks of the Ganges, considered a holy river, had 50 million Hindus attending it in 2019. Another well-known festival is the Jamasthini, which celebrates the birthday of Hinduism’s most revered god, Krishna, who was believed, centuries before Christianity, to have been, like Jesus, a god-man.

The Iraqis’ annual Araba’in pilgrimage to the shrine of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad in 2017 was attended by 30 million Muslims. The most iconic pilgrimage attended annually by at least a million people is the Islamic Hajj to Mecca, in which the Muslim faithful walk around a huge cubical black stone building, considered the House of God, where a small black stone is believed to have been sent to earth by God himself.

Not all mass processions are undertaken by world religions, but they are cultural practices. Japan, which is really an atheist nation, is known for its centuries-old festivals (matsuri), in which images or representations of Shinto gods and goddesses are put on carriages and pulled, the way the Black Nazarene is, along a city’s or a town’s streets, followed by thousands of devotees.

I’ve seen one in Kyoto (the Gion Matsuri), and it is an awesome event, with giant floats so elaborate they have been called mobile museums. In a way, just like the motivation of devotees in the Black Nazarene procession, the Gion procession is part of a purification ritual to appease the gods thought to cause fires, floods and earthquakes.

Phallus

A most unique kind of matsuri is the Kanamara in Kawasaki City and Hone in the town near Nagoya City, in which the image of veneration is a giant phallus, a symbol of fertility for a bountiful crop — or human— harvest. Probably the most photographed festivals are the Hadaka or “Naked Man” matsuris held in several sites in Japan. The event involves thousands of men wearing only loin cloths in the midwinter cold, jostling to catch sticks thrown by the priest, which are supposed to make their year a lucky one. (See accompanying collage of photos.)

One variation that reminds one of the Black Nazarene involves the town’s designation of a “holy man,” who is carried in a procession from one major temple to another. A “devotee” who succeeds in getting through the dense crowd and touching him is supposed to be extremely lucky in the coming year.

What is it about crowds, immersed in a sea of human bodies — other than the prospect of getting something from the Deity — that attracts “devotees” to participate in, even at the risk of being suffocated to death as many have in the Hindu events mentioned?

Self-transcendence

It is, as many philosophers and psychologists have shown, a method of “self-transcendence.”

That is, humans are so imprisoned in their own selves — their tiny fields of perception and consciousness and in their petty problems — that identifying with something bigger in worship, in ritual dancing, in EDSA-I kind of political event, and even in rock concerts, makes them forget their small selves, to experience a sense of liberation, an ecstasy in being submerged in the crowd. The religious would rationalize it as the ineffable experience of unity with the Divine.

The famous novelist and psychedelic-drug investigator Aldous Huxley vociferously criticized it, though, as “crowd-delirium, vulnerable to manipulation by both religious and political demagogues.”

The phenomenon of such huge religious festivals, instead, gives a deeper, even scientifically based, meaning to Marx’s notion of religion as opium for the people, especially so if the people are made to believe their wishes would be granted if they could endure the suffering of being packed in a sea of humanity.

These, however, do not help build our sense of nationhood, nor do they assist the participants in dealing with the hard realities of their lives to plan and work for better lives. In our case, it is a curse of delusion.

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