Suffering and devotion
The conduct of the Jan. 9 procession honoring the Black Nazarene is touted to have improved somewhat, with reports that it moved “faster” and that the devotees seemed “calmer.”
Yet there were reports of one devotee who died and as many as 800 injured — casualty figures that should be unacceptable but authorities have come to shrug off as par for the course in the heaving, daylong spectacle that yearly marks the center of Manila.
On top of everything else, tons of waste were left by the devotees, following the toxic crop at the same time last year.
Is there nothing to be done?
This is a vital query concerning this important religious devotion that goes back centuries. The famous image was carved by an unknown Mexican sculptor in the 17th century and brought to the Church of San Juan Bautista in Bagumbayan (today’s Luneta) by Augustinian Recollect priests in 1606.
Two years later, it would be enshrined in the Church of San Nicolas de Tolentino in Intramuros. The Feast of the Black Nazarene commemorates the first “traslacion,” in which the life-sized image was transferred from the Intramuros church to the Minor Basilica in Quiapo on Jan. 9, 1787.
Many answered prayers and miracles have been attributed to the Black Nazarene, which has survived earthquakes, fires and World War II.
It is said that witnessing the yearly traslacion is like witnessing a force of nature. Countless barefoot devotees from all over the country negotiate the 7-kilometer route from the Quirino Grandstand to Quiapo Church — a procession that lasts mere hours shy of a day.
The mortals who make up this sea of humanity risk death and maiming to fulfill a vow, to seek a blessing (the healing, say, of oneself or a loved one), or merely to express one’s faith.
Like a true force of nature, the traslacion is beautiful, awesome — and dangerous. (To complicate matters, it’s said numbers of young people go there for kicks.)
Every year the local government announces readiness to deal with the exigencies of the event, and the police force and personnel of concerned agencies are deployed as though to the frontline of battle.
Still, in 2017, two devotees died of cardiac arrest and more than 500 persons were recorded injured. This year’s lone fatality was a 51-year-old who succumbed to a heart attack; the 800 hurt that were reported by the Philippine Red Cross represented a noticeable spike in injuries.
For all that, the Philippine National Police said this year’s orderly traslacion was the product of yearlong planning and preparation.
And then there is the other bane of the Feast of the Black Nazarene: the harvest of garbage after the fact. Every year, devotees leave behind a mind-boggling amount of refuse, indeed a virtual typhoon of trash, to be swept up and collected by the hapless street sweepers of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority.
The garbage — mostly empty plastic bottles, styrofoam containers, food leftovers, plastic bags, and cardboard — can be found everywhere along the procession route, evidently just dropped or tossed without regard for others or the environment.
Last week, the MMDA reported collecting 15 truckloads of garbage from the procession route — a staggering amount but an improvement from last year’s reported 34 truckloads.
It’s been said again and again that cleanliness is next to godliness, but that saying that dates back to Babylonian times continues to be ignored by devotees of the Black Nazarene, who apparently think it unthinkable that love of God may also be expressed in love for one’s fellow man and woman, as well as for the planet.
It is, of course, impossible not to carry on with this brutal ritual of suffering and devotion, which looms yearly on the horizon like an inexorable tsunami.
But as always we call for a better observance of the Feast, to include — apart from route planning, stringent safety measures, and an antilittering drive requiring that procession participants pick up after themselves — a vigorous education campaign to benefit devotees whether young or old, whether perfervid or merely pious.
The bottom line is that there has to be a better way. A loving God does not demand that one suffer for one’s devotion.
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