I write better when I smoke. Don’t ask me to reduce it to a science.


Apropos my earlier post, the Black Nazarene will take to the streets of Quiapo once again tomorrow, attracting hordes of devotees. I wonder how many of those devotees know, as they’re clawing their way up the carriage for a chance to swipe a towel at the figure, that the statue they’re trying to touch is actually just a replica of the original? More to the point, I wonder if that matters at all.

(Someone just told me that the original Nazarene will be used tomorrow later. I don’t know how accurate that news is.)

That’s the thing with faith. If it’s strong enough, the icon becomes irrelevant. And therein lies an irony. Carry that argument through to its logical ends and you inevitably ask yourself, if I still need an icon, does that mean my faith is not strong?

Fundamentalists don’t use graven images as much as Roman Catholics do in obedience to what the Bible says. Muslims even go to the extent of banning the images of Mohammed, showing that they take more seriously than even the born-again, the exhortation  against idols. But not Catholics. Enter any Catholic church and you will be assaulted by the sight of hundred and one statues, paintings, and even reliquaries if you’re lucky. All of which are the object of veneration … just like the Nazarene.

Interestingly, there’s a statute of St. Peter in the Vatican whose bronze foot now looks like a stump because the details have been rubbed out by countless hands touching it.

I mean the thing is made of bronze, and pilgrims don’t touch it with sanders or anything! Can you imagine how many millions of momentary caresses it must take to do that much damage?


Anyway as I was saying, although the exhortation against idolatry is supposed to be a reminder that Abraham’s God is a jealous god, I think that it’s deeper – less literal – worth is as a roundabout way of saying that you shouldn’t have to have statutes and icons to believe; that the only kind of faith acceptable to Abraham’s God is blind faith.

Obviously that’s what the Muslims believe. But not the Catholic church.  Here’s my theory: the idea of blind faith as the only kind of acceptable faith – and therefore the only way to Heaven – is so scary for being wicked difficult that the Catholic church compromised. It’s okay to use statutes of saints and Jesus so long as you are worshiping the abstract concept of saintliness and salvation through Christ. Sounds logical enough, but how many devotees actually bother to draw such a super-fine distinction? And besides, the logic falls apart when we start talking of indulgences being granted for particular devotion to a specific statue like the Black Nazarene (If you kiss the stump in the picture, you get a 55-day indulgence, i.e., you spend 55 days less in Purgatory). In that situation – where there is a religious reward for loving a specific statue – can it even be said that you are worshiping the abstract and not the concrete?

Which brings me back to the devotos of tomorrow. If they know that the thing being paraded is not the real deal, will their ardor for it mean that they are closer to the true idea of faith as enunciated in the Bible? Or will the procession be nothing more than just another shamanistic ritual in the ritual-crazy Philippines?


Filed under: musings, religion,

10 Responses

  1. BrianB says:

    ROM, that’s why there’s no better religion for saving souls than Roman Catholicism, as even idolatric idiots can go to heaven.

  2. cvj says:

    My guess is that the acceptance of icons (contrary to the literal interpretation of the 2nd commandment) by the Catholic Church is a concession to the needs of scalability. I think the rituals of the Catholic Church were put in place to operationalize the process of salvation (or sanctification) of tens of millions. A system as big as the Catholic Church cannot rely purely on a small core of true believers. It needs a bureaucracy in the form of feasts, indulgences and other rituals are to keep the system moving.

  3. rom says:

    brianb: hahaha! so right!

    cvj: you just might have something there, uncle. Altho, the situation you describe is pretty cynical. Salvation as an industrial operation; it’s like the assembly line for heaven. Religion loses, then, all semblance of faith. In such a situation, I find it not difficult to believe that the core values of Christianity can be easily lost. Hence, the need for martin luther and the enlightenment, eh?

  4. cvj says:

    I think you’re right about the inevitability martin luther and the enlightenment. There is always the danger for any system to serve itself instead of its original purpose (as what happens in many bureacracies). At some point, the true believers became aware that this is taking place within the Catholic Church.

    On the other hand, the problem for a system that tries to sustain itself on core values with minimal bureacracy e.g. the charismatics and evangelicals, is lack of scalability. They will always remain a small and fragmented subset since strong convictions often result in division. The Gawad Kalinga and Ang Kapatiran splits are recent examples of this.

  5. Jeg says:

    The Eastern Orthodox church sees religious icons in the same way they view verses from the Bible and from their sacred texts. Whereas the texts provide an illustration of their faith in words, the icons do it with pictures. Like the Bible and their liturgy, theyre tools for teaching and worship. The fact that Jesus came in the flesh, they contend, means he could be portrayed in their sacred icons. They arent allowed to portray the Father in icons since there is no physical manifestation of the Father.

    Unlike the Catholics, the Eastern Church never had a problem with individual bishoprics exercising autonomy, and yet they arent fragmented, recognizing that they are one Church, and they attribute the use icons for some of that unity. (They recognize the Catholics as part of that Church, and still hold to the belief that as bishop of Rome, the Pope deserves primacy, but they dont recognize the Pope’s supremacy.)

  6. cvj says:

    Jeg, that’s the most sensible justification for allowing [pictorial] representations of Biblical figures that i’ve read. It’s far better than citing passages in the Old Testament.

  7. rom says:

    jeg:enlightening. unfortunately, we aren’t greek orthodox, and so the filipino devotion to graven images is nowhere near that noble or even right-headed. 😦

  8. BrianB says:

    Big difference between representational art and a miraculous statue.

  9. Jeg says:

    One of the new things the Catholic Church did for this year’s feast day is a review of the Catechism before the actual procession. They taught the devotees the position of the Church on that: that the statue isnt miraculous. It is God and the faith people have in him that brings about miracles.

    I suppose the Church finally realized things were getting out of hand.

  10. tonio says:

    Took them long enough to realize that… and yet when I got to catch some of the news reports where they were interviewing the families of those who got killed, it seems like they STILL missed the freaking point.

    I mean I have nothing against pagans, but a statue isn’t something to lose your life over.

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