Today sees quite an event in Manila. Up to 8million people will throng the streets for the procession of the Black Nazarene.  This is a black statue of Jesus carrying his cross.  Placed on a shoulder-borne carriage, the image is carried by marshals (you can see them in yellow shirts).
 Originally a statue with fair complexion the ship that carried it from Mexico to Manila caught fire. It barely survived the fire, thus its charcoal color. Last year, the procession took 14 hours to travel the short distance. Referred to as the translation – the annual procession commemorates the transfer of the Black Nazarene on Jan 9, 1787  to St. John the Baptist Church in Quiapo Manila. 
As tertians we visited Quiapo back in September – on just a normal day – and it was crowded with people with queues of up to an hour just to visit the statue. What is behind this devotion?  Filipinos identify with the struggles and sufferings of Jesus Christ’   In the statue Jesus is depicted getting to his feet after falling under the weight of the cross – this  resilience is valued strongly by Filipinos – even in the most difficult circumstances they never seem to lose hope.

There is something of a frenzy about today’s event – in previous years people have died from stampedes.   We were advised not to attend because of the dangers inherent – and also we are occupied most of the day – so I have taken a video clip from last years procession to give you a flavour.  You will see people desperately trying to touch the statue – and also throwing handkerchiefs so that they may be rubbed on the statue and passed back.  You will also see the crush, danger and discomfort that many of the ‘devotees’ voluntarily undergo.  From a Western perspective – this is unsettling – and such religious fervour is challenging to witness.  One of the ways to cope with this discomfort is to dismiss it as hysteria or superstition. But maybe there is something deeper at work…..  the power of the incarnation ….. an almighty God who came down to Earth, renounced power and privelege – and entered into the reality of our suffering .

So the event can be interpreted as being many different ways. It is a popular devotion – to non-Catholics it may seem superstitious . Having lived here for a few months with the privilege of sharing life with so many Phillipinos – in the slums, in mountain villages – having seen two devastating tornadoes – I have only admiration for their hospitality, warmth and cheerfulness. Their identification with the sufferings and resilience of Christ makes sense to me.  This year organizers believe thousands of survivors of  tropical storm Sendong will attend.

The German Philosopher Rudiger Safranski says that religion in Western Europe has become “a cold religious project”: a “mix of social ethics, institutional power thinking, psychotherapy, techniques of meditation, museum curation, cultural project management, and social work.”  This insipid form of a religion, yearning to be socially acceptable in a society that has changed rapidly, some argue has helped to empty Western Europe’s churches. It is through this lense that I believe we should watch, with a certain humbleness, the outpourings of  ‘popular religiosity’.  It is easy to mock or scoff, but it always leaves you with a sense of emptiness….