17TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: PRAYER AS PERSISTENCE

persistence in prayer

I just came back from visiting our home in Bicol, Philippines for the celebration of 93rd birthday of my father.  It was just a simple family celebration to give thanks to God for having given my father such a long life. He doesn’t have any major illness but just general weakness and immobility due to old age.

During the mass in celebration for his birthday, we all shared about the legacy of our father. We all agreed that one of the lasting and greatest legacy he has left us is the value of persistent prayer. He taught us to pray daily the Rosary as a family together. He told us, as well as many people, to pray always. As a Legion of Mary diocesan leader, he would tag us along in going house to house exhorting the people to pray always.

Today’s readings of the 17th Sunday in ordinary time, teach us about persistence in prayer. Jesus in the gospel even tells us to be obstinate in asking God for all our needs.

Abraham in the First Reading continuously bargained and negotiated with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorah from destruction for the sake of innocent people who lived there. For each of Abraham’s petition, God granted Abrahams prayer.

Jesus recommends the same attitude of persistence in prayer. In the Gospel he tells the famous parable about knocking on the door of a friend late at night to borrow some bread. The friend refuses because he and his family are all in bed. Jesus says, “If he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get out of bed to give him what he needs because of his persistence.”

These readings tell us that prayer is not just mere verbal supplication of our needs but more profoundly a positive and courageous attitude before God. As Pope Francis said, prayer is a courageous “knocking at the heart” of God with a strong unwavering faith that he will respond.

When we pray courageously, the Lord gives us the grace, but he also gives us himself in the grace: the Holy Spirit, that is, himself! Who comes to bring it to me. It’s him. Our prayer, if it is courageous, receives what it asks for, but also that which is more important: the Lord. …

Pope Francis, Vatican City, Oct 10, 2013

In the Baclaran shrine, this persistence in prayer attitude is shown through the letters that devotees write to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.  From the thanksgiving letters we read every Wednesday, one important albeit hard insight that devotees learn is that in prayer they receive may not be the answer which they desire, but the answer which God in his wisdom and love knows to be best. In other words, not all petitions from the devotees were answered by God in the exact way and time that the devotees hoped for.

Even though their prayers were not answered in the way they expected it, Our Mother of Perpetual Help empowers and strengthens them as they continue to hope that God will respond to their prayers in the way that God knows what is best for them.  As the devotees pray in the novena, “Make us aware that God never ceases to love us; that He answers all our prayers in the way that is best for us.” Krystelline Jimenez testifies to this conviction in her thanksgiving letter February 3, 2016,

I have prayed the Novena every Wednesday morning for a couple of years now. Some of my petitions were answered with a “no”, some were “not yet” but most were “YES”. But more than the petitions, the Novena gives me a sense of security, a sense of peace, where nothing could ever go wrong. I thank the Lord and Mama Mary for taking care of me and my family despite my shortcomings. Thank you for my whole life, including the No and Not yets.

There are some devotees where many of their petitions were not even answered. Despite this, they continue to come to the shrine. For them, the warm presence and loving gaze of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is enough as it gives them inner peace and strength. This is the experience of Ritchie Limpin who wrote in July 08, 2014,

For a person who has many concerns like me—a single mom who brings up my children alone, it is only to Our Mother of Perpetual Help that I hold on to. I must admit, there are times that I started to ask myself, what do I get out of coming here besides the profound peace I feel whenever I come to this place? Are there any prayers that she has already heard and come true? Despite all of these, I continue to visit her even though sometimes there is nothing that I can think of anymore to pray for. I just remain sitting or kneeling there and praying the novena.

For the petitions answered, however, they are not just graces coming from God but supplemented by human efforts and cooperation. As the Filipino saying goes, “Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa” (Mercy is God’s, action is us) implies that prayer must be complemented by action and action must be supplemented by prayer.

Sto. Niño at the Shrine

sto-niño-baclaran

After the great spectacle of popular religiosity during the Traslación of the Black Nazarene or Poong Hesus Nazareno in Quiapo, Manila, the whole country gears for another grand pageantry of popular devotion in the coming feast of Sto Niño on January 20–the third Sunday of January.

The feast of the Sto. Niño (Holy Child Jesus) is celebrated annually in January in many parts of the Philippines. The most prominent of them all, however, is in the biggest city in southern Philippines–Cebu–the cradle of Christianity in the Philippines. The most significant symbol of this historical episode is the relic of Santo Niño de Cebú. The Santo Niño de Cebú (Cebuano: Balaang Bata sa Sugbu, Filipino: Ang Banal na Sanggol ng Cebu) is associated with a religious image of the Christ Child widely venerated as miraculous by Filipino Catholics. It is the oldest Catholic relic in the Philippines, originally given in 1521 as a gift by the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan to  Cebu’s local chieftain, Rajah Humabon, and his wife as a baptismal gift.

The shrine has its own statue of Sto. Niño in its front area near the main entrance door. The statue is enclosed in a protective fiberglass container. It is the second most popular statue in the shrine, second only to the statue of the dark skinned Christ crucified on the cross. It is, indeed, a perfect example of contrast as the two statue faced each other at the entrance of the shrine: the child Jesus with a cute innocent smile and the adult Jesus in pain on the cross. Devotees criss cross, in going from one statue to the other, to seek divine intervention and guidance amidst their everyday travails and struggles.

The people usually touch, kiss, bow or wipe with their handkerchief as they pray in front of the statue of Sto. Niño. Sometimes they offer flowers at the foot of the statue. There is a special ritual, however, that devotees do in front of the statue Sto Niño statue–people knocking on the glass. Nobody knows who started this ritual, when this ritual begun and what this ritual truly symbolized. Perhaps the best explanation I can surmise for this ritual is this is a popular expression of the devotees’ complete trust in the words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 7: 7-8):

Ask, and it will be given you;
search, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened for you.
For everyone who asks receives,
and everyone who searches finds,
and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Poong Hesus Nazareno at the Shrine

black-nazarene

Today in Manila, all roads lead to Quiapo.

Every January 9, the Traslación of the Black Nazarene (commemorating the “solemn transfer” of the image’s copy from Quirino Grandstand to Quiapo) makes its way along the streets of Manila through a 6-kilometer-long procession. An estimated number of 3 million people are expected to participate and witness the event, which may last about 22 hours as in previous years. The traslación is undoubtedly the biggest one-day public display of popular religiosity in the Philippines, or perhaps, the whole world.

The Black Nazarene ( in Filipino: Poóng Itím na Nazareno, Hesus Nazareno) is a life-sized image of a dark-skinned, kneeling Jesus Christ carrying the Cross enshrined in the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila.

Thousands of devotees of the Black Nazarene, some wearing maroon shirts and carrying white towels, and barefooted have started the hours-long journey through the streets of Manila early morning today. The Black Nazarene will be accompanied by throngs of people with many trying to climb onto the carossa carrying the miraculous image. Devotees scramble to touch the statue as part of their prayer and expression of devotion.

nazareno-devotee-barefoot

Many devotees of Poong Hesus Nazareno, especially those coming from Parañaque, Las Piñas and Cavite area, pass by the shrine on the way to Quiapo. Many of them in barefoot wear maroon t-shirt with the image of Poong Hesus Nazareno, carry white towels and maroon handkerchief with the image of  Poong Hesus Nazareno and some carry the statue of Poong Hesus Nazareno. They say a little prayer in front of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help inside the shrine and the shrine’s statue of crucified Christ at the entrance of the shrine, before they continue their journey to Quiapo.

nazareno-devotee

We don’t have a statue of Poong Hesus Nazareno in the shrine but we have the statue of the dark skinned Christ crucified on the cross at the entrance of the shrine. This statue is easily the most favorite statue in the shrine. Many devotees crowd the statue, touching, wiping and kissing it. Many can be seen crying in front of the statue. At least every six months, the shrine needs to repaint the statue because the paint has faded after all the wiping and kissing of the statue by the thousands of devotees.

For many devotees in the shrine, the statue is a tangible representation of our Lord Jesus whom they can touch and kiss. When they touch and kiss the statue they believe that they already touch Jesus. And because they have touched him, they were able to bring to him their petitions and pleas. Perhaps, another reason for its popularity is because the devotees can see their own sufferings in the sufferings of the crucified Christ. Because of this, they feel that Christ on the cross identifies with their own sufferings.

Watching the devotees wiping the statue of the crucified Christ with their handkerchief or bandanna then wiping it on themselves reminds me of the story of Veronica who met Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary. According to Church tradition, Veronica[1] was moved with pity when she saw Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha and gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead. Jesus accepted the offering, held it to his face, and then handed it back to her—the image of his face was miraculously impressed upon Veronica’s veil.

feet-nazareno

I believe that the experience of Veronica, encountering Jesus on his way to Calvary, is the same experience of the millions of devotees in the shrine and in Quiapo. When devotees wipe the statue of the crucified Christ in the shrine and Poong Hesus Nazareno in Quiapo, the crucified face of Christ becomes impressed upon their handkerchief or bandanna. Their handkerchief or bandanna bearing the crucified face of Christ becomes a great resource for them in their life-journey especially in their daily struggles and hardships. When devotees wiped their handkerchief or bandanna bearing the crucified face of Christ on their bodies, they experienced Jesus touching and embracing their tired and worn out bodies. They can sense Jesus’ solidarity and identification with their suffering and trials in life. This gives them the greatest hope to continue to face life’s difficulties and reach their aspirations because Christ has also experienced pain and suffering. Like Christ, they will also resurrect and emerge victorious amidst the seemingly insurmountable problems in life.

It is also important to remember that the celebration of the traslacion of Poong Hesus Nazareno still falls within the Christmas season. We are in the Wednesday after the Epiphany of Lord, which is part of the Christmas celebration. This means that the passion and suffering of Jesus cannot be separated from the incarnation of Christ–God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. When the Son of God became human, he was prepared to embrace our pain and suffering, including death. If we are to truly live the spirit of Christmas, therefore, we must also be prepared to identify with the mission of Jesus and follow Jesus’ words and deeds, which led to his suffering and death on the cross.

crowd-nazareno


[1]There is no reference to the story of St Veronica and her veil in the canonical Gospels. The closest thing in the gospel about Veronica is the miracle of the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’s garment (Luke 8:43–48)