Who is Jesus today?
Let me start with a reflection on two famous popular religious devotions celebrated in January in many areas in the Philippines: Santo Niño and Jesus Nazareno. One is an innocent child; the other is a suffering man. Since we have not walked the streets of Palestine, I hope that these initial observations into our common everyday Filipino experience of Jesus would gently lead us a relationship with a human God who is defiant against suffering.
In the 1970s, theologians already commented on these popular devotions. In fact, both of them were highly criticized as promoting passivity among the Catholic population. While the “rightists” deride these everyday devotions as obstacles to progress through sacralising uncritical piety and ignorance, the “leftists” also criticize these religious practices as enthroning suffering, thus, making religion effective opium of the masses. The Filipino penchant for a child-God, on the one hand, and a dying God, on the other, neglects the adult Jesus who whipped the money changers or lambasted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. From their passive spirituality, Filipinos too are passive in society. Or, so they say.
Today, however, I would like to revisit these devotions close to the hearts of the poor in order to gain new insights on Jesus and the implications of his life to our Christian lives.
Let me start with the child. The Santo Niño has been criticized for infantilizing Jesus in order to domesticate him. Like any child, all that we expect him to do is to answer our prayers, nothing more. Some of our practices also point to this direction. We create Santo Niños in the sizes, colors and forms that we want. We have small ones that can fit our wallets; or a big one to decorate our buildings. We have Santo Niño policemen, basketball players, construction workers or MMDA traffic enforcers. We dress him with “gold” to show his royal powers, with “red” for his military authority (“El Capitan General” or “El teniente de laguardia”); with “green” and call it Santo Niño de Suerte for good luck and prosperity, etc. Our businesses have the Santo Niño in it – on top of cash registers, coin boxes in jeepneys, even inside beer houses! “Para swertehin ang negosyo!” We are criticized by making Jesus into our image and likeness. By keeping him as a child, the criticism goes, and by highlighting his childlike obedience to his Father, we have also bracketed the adult prophetic Jesus who does not mince words to tell us the truth of our lives.
Is this criticism founded? I asked around and interviewed people on how they relate with Jesus in the images. There was one woman who told me: “True, I talk to him, plead with him, beg him to grant me my wish. He is like my friend. I even dance in front of him just to tell him I am serious with my prayer. Maybe he will be pleased because he is a child. But there are also times that he tells me things I do not want to hear.” Something happened after the death of her husband. Every night before sleeping, she quarrelled with the Santo Niño. She hurled all her painful questions on him: why did he permit her husband to die; who is going to take care of her only infant child; who is going to support her that she has no work. This went on for weeks, maybe months. Every night she feels exhausted with no strength and joy to wake up the next day. Until one evening, she begins to notice that her Santo Niño grows bigger and bigger until he was able to talk to her reprimanding her to move on with her life. She heard Jesus tell her: “Endless self-pity is not only selfish; it can also kill you. Are you not thinking of your child? If you want your child to live, move on.” From hereon, life was different for her. Of course, it was her own reflection that led her to this consciousness. But her simple relationship with Jesus in everyday life makes us know him as both loving and prophetic, both understanding and challenging.
Let us go to the suffering Jesus Nazareno. We have seen the procession in Quiapo last week. Why do millions of people flock to the image – from small children to the elderly –regardless of health or security warnings? Critics say that the image encourages fanaticism and enthrones passive acceptance of suffering. But it might help us if we ask people on the ground. These are some of the answers we hear: “He granted my prayer; I come here to thank him”; “my mother is sick at home; I ask him to heal her”. “I promised him that if I get a job, I will be here every year. That is why I am here.” These responses are not images of passivity but of relentless struggle to survive. The devotees will point to the image itself. First, they say, his eyes look up to the heavens in prayerful supplication – as if telling us that it is only in God that we live. Second, he is kneeling at the weight of the cross but he is not crushed down. His specific gesture is a struggle to get up in a defiant act to crush suffering. As we say in Filipino: “Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa.”
These devotions to Jesus in the Philippine context show us what Christian life truly is as it is lived on the ground: a curious mix of prayer and action, trust and resistance, mysticism and prophecy. And since no one among us has walked with Jesus in Palestine, these devotions also serve as a window that leads us to a view of the life of Jesus as mystic and prophet.
As Roger Haight says in his book, The Symbol of God, “Christology began with Jesus of Nazareth, and it must begin with Jesus today”.
Danny Pilario, St Vincent SchoolofTheology