By Fr. Rolando V. Dela Rosa, O.P.
Perhaps you have come across articles and commentaries that demonize the Black Nazarene devotion. The writers generally see it as nothing more than a pagan ritual reeking with fanaticism, idolatry, superstition, and irrational folk religiosity. They scoff at the devotees whom they regard as religious addicts who use faith as a crutch.
These “cultured despisers” squirm with disgust as they watch millions of men and women being pushed, pulled, rammed by the massive force of millions of sweat-soaked bodies, their bare feet bloodied by hours of walking. Accustomed to a restrained, subdued, and often intellectualized expression of faith, they find no redeeming value in such extravagant display of religious fervor.
True, some of these devotees think of the Black Nazarene as a representation of a useful god who answers prayers according to their specifications, soothes their guilt, washes away their sins, and gives them food, healing, and comfort. This god must give everything and demand nothing. Trouble is, when this useful god no longer gives them what they want, it becomes easily disposable.
But most of the millions of devotees of the Black Nazarene remain staunch believers, not only because of some benefits they had received or hope to receive, but because, it is their way of paying sincere homage to a God who, to prove His love for us, will give up everything and stop at nothing. They join the procession because, through an instinctive knowledge unmediated by catechisms or sophisticated theologies, they are certain that God demands the same kind of love from us.
St. Thomas Aquinas once asked the question, “Why should we love God?” His answer was not: “Because He is useful to us.” He wrote: “We should love God because He loved us first.”
When I was a seminarian, I had a weekly catechism session with some adults residing in an impoverished district in the hitherto undeveloped Tatalon Estate. Almost all of them were Black Nazarene devotees. They were people who worked hard but with very little prospect for economic improvement. Well-to-do people living in fancy and exclusive subdivisions consider them as “clutter” that needs to be wiped out.
But, for all their inevitable failings and disadvantages, those squatters believe and love God in a way we can only faintly imagine. For, despite the fact that their faith is tested all the time, threatened, and always in danger of diminishing or vanishing because of the daily disappointments they encounter, they join the procession as their answer to the crucial question: “To what staggering lengths would you go to prove your love for God?”
Many of us prove our love for God by staying for an hour in the church during weekends, fingering our rosary beads, visiting the Blessed Sacrament, or giving donations to charity. Habituated to such convenient and normal ways of linking ourselves with the divine, we are quick to pounce on others whose expressions of faith differ from us.
But who knows, what we consider as eccentric or beyond the pale of normalcy might actually be God’s voice whispered in the ears of some ordinary people who, for want of a better way to express their love for God, are willing to be called, as St. Paul puts it, “fools for Christ.”