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Thursday, January 17, 2008


Jesus cures a leper

In today's readings, we read about two supplications with very different results. In the first (1 Samuel 4:1-11), the Israelite army, having been defeated by the Philistines, bring up the ark of the covenant among them, trusting that the Lord will then lead them to victory. They instead suffer a more disastrous defeat, and the ark is captured by their enemies. The Psalms (Psalms 44(43),10-11.14-15.25-26) lament a profound disappointment that is fitting. In the gospel reading (Mark 1:40-45), a leper begs the Lord for healing, the Lord touches the leper and heals him.

Over at Extra Nos, Lito and I have been discussing the feast of the Black Nazarene, celebrated in the Philippines every year. In this feast, devotees believe that they can obtain the Lord's blessings in various forms by touching the Black Nazarene statue: a wooden replica of the Lord carrying the cross. It is four hundred years old. It is black because it had improbably survived two major fires that destroyed the church housing the statue. It has also survived two earthquakes, and the devastating bombing of Manila in the second world war. Lito is rightly concerned that these devotees might be putting their trust on the touch, rather than seeking recourse in prayer. And yet we have the example of St. Paul's face cloth in Acts 19, which reports that touching the cloth endowed healing. Lito counters that this is St. Paul's cloth, and its properties are in Scripture, whereas the Black Nazarene is not reported in the Bible. Nor is there a report in the Bible of curative properties for simply any object that belongs to or is a replica of holy people. There is only St. Paul's face cloth, the Lord's garments, the bones of Ezekiel, the ark of the covenant, the staff of Moses, the serpent staff, etc. No general statement about other items in general.

However, I do propose that the Word made flesh is more than the word in print. While we have this limited collection of inspired scriptures, the Lord is not limited to them. His revelations, as in the canon of Scripture, exhibits beyond the pages of canonical Scripture. His works go beyond the reports of the evangelists. I only propose, therefore, where miracles are concerned, that if the Lord had at some instance used physical objects as channels of his grace, e.g., to heal, then it is entirely possible that he may do so again for objects that are not reported in Scripture. There is no explicit report about infants being baptized, for example, but Lutherans and Catholics (as with the Orthodox, among others) believe in the efficacy of infant baptism. There is no explicit report about transubstantiation nor consubstantiation, and yet Catholics and Lutherans believe in the real presence of the Lamb of God in the bread and wine.

Perhaps what has yet to be considered is that many who observe the Black Nazarene devotions really have experienced the Lord's healing in their lives. And perhaps the survival of the Black Nazarene statue through fire and earthquake was indeed miraculous. I am not a devotee of the Black Nazarene, and I will likely never become one. I hate crowds, for one thing, and I am not a very "touchy" sort of Catholic. That is perhaps to my disadvantage: my faith is not as childlike as theirs.

What is certainly true is that the devotees must be aware of two things in their devotions. First, they must understand that the source of blessings is the Lord himself. He may indeed use a charred statue, and, having been touched by God's holy protection, it may indeed be a blessed statue. But the Lord is the source of that blessedness, and all healing comes from the Lord. Second, they must understand that the Lord chooses when to bless and when not to, as in the readings today illustrate. Supplicants must not presume that the Lord is a genie, compelled to grant wishes by the devotion of touching the statue, or any particular work (such as bringing the holy ark of the covenant into battle) or object (such as the ark). And I think Lito is rightly concerned that the priests in charge of the feast should make that clear, and the bishops of the land should teach that clearly.

But who is to say that they haven't already, as the archbishop clarifies in his invitation to the fourth centenary in 2006? In it he wrote:

  • that the centenary celebration shall carry the theme: ”JESUS NAZARENO – KAGANAPAN NG BUHAY” (Jn. 10:10), which appropriately embodies His salvific role as center of our lives
  • that the two-fold objectives of the centenary shall be:
    • The renewal and strengthening of the faith of the Filipino people in the tender mercy and love of Almighty God, who sent His Son as an aloning sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn.4-10); and
    • The preservation and enhancement if the heritage devotion of the Filipino people in the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29), under the special appellation of NUESTRO PADRE JESUS NAZARENO;
  • that all celebrations shall be directed at understanding the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church in particular the catechesis proposed by the Archdiocese of Manila in its Vision Statement and encouraging the faithful to frequent the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion;

Trent repeats the points in Nicea II in stating the following about venerating images in general:

  [The holy Synod commands] that images of Christ, the Virgin Mother of God, and other saints are to be held and kept especially in churches, that due honour and reverence (debitum honorem et venerationem) are to be paid to them, not that any divinity or power is thought to be in them for the sake of which they may be worshipped, or that anything can be asked of them, or that any trust may be put in images, as was done by the heathen who put their trust in their idols [Ps. cxxxiv, 15 sqq.], but because the honour shown to them is referred to the prototypes which they represent, so that by kissing, uncovering to, kneeling before images we adore Christ and honour the saints whose likeness they bear (Denzinger, no. 986).

The efficacy of catechizing devotees in particular is difficult to measure, but who is to say that all who hear will at all pay heed? I am certain that many, if not most of the devotees, are aware of these crucial things. The catechism is concisely clear about the proper disposition to images. I believe my people in the Philippines are smart enough to know the difference between the statue and the prototype. They would connect mentally and sentimentally with the prototype (Christ). But there is a different and greater danger. I am also sure that many among them, like the Israelite army in the first reading (1 Samuel 4), might approach the Lord without humility. When the ark of the Lord appears among them before the second battle, the army is proud and perhaps arrogant. They do not treat the Lord with respect, but consider the ark as a talisman that they control as they please. Among them were Eli's sons, corrupt as narrated in 1 Samuel 2, yet incredibly certain that the ark's presence means that the Lord will ignore their unrepentant disposition. Perhaps some devotees will likewise approach the Black Nazarene as if it were a talisman, rather than approach the Lord with humble supplication. Instead of praying "if you will, you can make me clean", they might instead demand "make me clean!"

Ultimately, I know nothing of these things about the devotees personally and with certitude. I cannot read their minds and hearts. Only the Lord can, and to whom he will, he will grant his blessings.

[Further reading on the Black Nazarene from Whispers in the Logia. Other sources are inline above.]

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