Almost as soon as Cardinal Luis Tagle ended his homily at the Luneta Park Mass preceding the procession of the Black Nazarene, a big commotion broke out, shattering the solemnity of the occasion. Without waiting for the Mass to end, a number of devotees jostled against one another to take the statue and begin the procession. The clergy stood in shock, unable to do anything to stop the rowdy crowd from rushing toward the improvised altar and knocking down everything on its path. In the ensuing melee, the metal-fabricated “crown of thorns” fell from the head of the revered image. It went missing for more than an hour. Someone in the crowd had picked it up and returned it only when the procession was already underway.

According to the caretakers of the image, it was not the first time this had happened, and so, to them, there was no reason to be worried.  Each time it fell, the crown was always recovered. They believe that anyone who would think of stealing it would be courting eternal bad luck. Discounting the fact that every year, some devotees have been known to appropriate some strands of the statue’s abaca hairpiece, believing these to have miraculous powers, I think what deters people from taking something so highly treasured is more than just fear. It is reverence.

The classics scholar, Paul Woodruff, views reverence as a capacity for feelings and emotions that arise from “a sense that there is something larger than a human being, accompanied by capacities for awe, respect, and shame; it is often expressed in, and reinforced by, ceremony.” While every person is capable of reverence, it nevertheless needs to be cultivated. One acquires it through experience and training, and many promptly lose it.

We usually associate reverence with religion. But Woodruff believes this virtue predates religion and exists independently of religious belief. “Ritual and reverence in common life are so familiar that we scarcely notice them until they are gone,” Woodruff writes in his book “Reverence: renewing a forgotten virtue.” “In sports, in entertainment, in the law court, the voting booth, the boardroom, there are ritual and reverence…. Most importantly, we see reverence in good leadership, in education, and in a home that is more than a place for eating, sleeping, watching television, and playing games. Home above all is the place where small rituals bring a family together into a family, where the respect they share is so common and familiar that they hardly recognize it as flowing from reverence.” Reverence is not mere respect for something; more than that, it is a feeling that impels us to always do what is right.

But, indeed, like all other things in the world, the forms in which we express reverence are changing. Often, the archaic rituals through which it is communicated carry no significance for young people, so that its opposite, irreverence, comes to be praised instead. Still, Woodruff points out, while we may often lose track of the idea and its importance, the virtue itself never disappears. Now and then we find ourselves groping for new forms of expression that can appease the nagging “awareness of something missing,” to borrow a phrase from Jürgen Habermas.

Clearly, it was the absence of any reverence that made it possible for a thief to sneak into the church in Betis last Dec. 30, during a lull in the town’s fiesta celebration, and brazenly detach the image of the Infant Jesus from the embrace of the statue of the Nuestra Señora de la Consolacion y Correa (Our Lady of Consolation and Cincture). The 300-year-old icon quickly found its way into the antiques market, where dealers, agents, and collectors typically know one another. A week after its disappearance, the statue’s ivory head, hands, and feet resurfaced after a payment of P162,000. The person who was responsible for retrieving the dismembered icon could not say who stole and traded it.

That is what has always baffled me about the trade in antiques, particularly religious icons. On one hand, we value old things because they are links to a way of life that is much older than us, whose meanings and significance continue to reside in our communities. The feeling of reverence they inspire in us prods us to live correctly and become better human beings.

But, on the other hand, this antiquarian fascination has created a market for mummified objects. Old things are viciously wrenched from their contexts, drained of all personal meanings, and peddled as decorative artifacts of a bygone age. What value would the headless torso of the Santo Niño have when it takes its place in some corner of the living room of a wealthy collector? Nothing, except to serve as a mute witness to his or her boundless wealth and lack of reverence.

The statement issued by the Archdiocesan Commission on Church Heritage of the Archdiocese of San Fernando on the recovery of the stolen image says it all: “In cases like this, some unscrupulous entities are bound to make easy money.  It is most unfortunate that they choose to ignore the fact that what make religious icons priceless and precious are the historical, cultural, and spiritual meanings that Catholic devotees attach to such symbols of their faith.”

I do share the joy that the people of Betis feel over the return of the missing icon. But I don’t think it was a good idea to pay ransom to get it back. A new image of the Infant Jesus could have been made, and the replacement would have made no difference to those who are primarily bound by belief and reverence.

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