A letter from Mary Nebelsick and Paul Matheny in the Philippines
March 26, 2010
It is a grey here in New Haven on these final days of Lent. The clouds are close on the horizon and the weather is blustery and cold. There are fits of sunshine, but mostly the wind cuts through you like a knife. It almost makes us forget that on the other side of the world the sun is blazing down on graduation day at Union Theological Seminary. Graduation day for our other students at Philippine Christian University is not far away.
Behind each of the graduates there is a story that stretches back for generations. It goes beyond the gates of the seminary, beyond the roads and bridges, up the mountains and beyond time. It stretches for all of our students back to those dark, tear drenched days of the Bible, when Jesus Christ was betrayed, put on trial and crucified. For many Filipinos the image of the suffering Christ is the one they hold on to in their hearts.
For us and for them, these are the days of sorrow and remembrance when we see Jesus walking resolutely on the path that was set before him. The Filipinos recollect this path of sadness, the Via Dolorosa, not only during Lent, but also most memorably during the procession when they venerate the statue of Hesus Nazareno, the black Nazarene. The procession of the Hesus Nazareno takes place early in January. Thousands upon thousands of Filipinos make the pilgrimage to Manila to take part in the procession and to walk barefoot behind the float that holds the statue of Jesus. This year a million and a half Filipinos lined the streets to get a glimpse of the statue. They crowded up to the statue in droves and threw handkerchiefs up to waiting attendants. They prayed that the attendants would rub the handkerchiefs on the statue’s robes and begged the attendant to throw the handkerchiefs back to them. When he does they will treasure these handkerchiefs like relics. They believe that they can rub these handkerchiefs on their own bodies and they will be healed like the woman who touched Jesus’ robe.
What does this statue look like you ask? It is an almost life-sized statue of Jesus. The statue was carved almost 300 years ago by an unknown Mexican artist and suffered greatly on its journey from Mexico to the Philippines. A fire engulfed the boat transporting it and the flames scorched the entire statue. This statue of Jesus has a darkened face etched with exhaustion and sorrow. His back is bent with the heavy load of the cross he carries. He stumbles onto one knee and remains prone. He cannot go on any farther. His strength is gone. This is the moment that the Mexican carver has immortalized.
Many Filipinos see in the statue of Hesus Nazareno the image of themselves as a suffering people. They see it as a confirmation that in Jesus of Nazareth, God came to them in the flesh. They see their own suffering in the suffering of Jesus. Their sorrow is etched on Jesus’ face. Their broken bodies can be seen in Jesus’ broken body. His life of suffering, pain, and betrayal is their life. His life turned suffering on earth into joy in heaven, just as their suffering on earth will end in joy in heaven. He loved them enough to suffer for them and he made their suffering holy. In their daily suffering, they are close to Jesus. Their suffering offers them redemption both here in this world and later in the world to come.
If we are Protestants, we do not venerate statues; yet, I believe that the way that Jesus is depicted in this statue can speak powerfully to us. We can also enter into a greater understanding of the suffering that Jesus experienced by surveying this statue of a suffering master. Perhaps, we can go a little further as well. The moment that the unknown artist depicted is the moment right before Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service by the Romans and was forced to carry Jesus’ cross for him to Golgatha. The Gospel of Mark tells us that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus and came from Cyrene, which was a city in northern Africa. He was almost certainly a Jew and might easily have been one of the early converts to Christianity since his name is mentioned in three of the four Gospels. Simon was a stranger to Jesus, yet he accompanied Jesus on his final tortuous journey.
Step by step, he would have carried Jesus’ cross on his shoulders and performed one of the last acts of compassion for a man condemned to die. In performing this act of compassion, Simon’s life was transformed. By taking on the suffering of Jesus, his life was renewed. His sons, Alexander and Rufus, are so well known to the community of believers for whom the Gospel of Mark is written, that they are mentioned as great friends and loyal companions.
When we view the statue of the Hesus Nazareno, which the Filipinos hold in such high esteem, I believe that we should ask ourselves, “Can we do for Jesus what Simon of Cyrene did?” “Could we have walked that last tortuous journey with Jesus and carried his burden for him, at least for a little while?” “Can we see in this cross, the heavy plank of wood on our shoulders, the gateway to a new life?” “Can we take upon our shoulders the suffering of our world, even if for a little while, so that we can become closer to the one who died for us on the cross?” Simon’s first encounter with Jesus was not his final one. His encounter changed him. If we take on Simon’s challenge, I can assure you it will change us as well. Who knows what miracles we will see and what works of transformation we will witness?
We leave you, dear friends, again thanking you for your constant love and great support of us and our ministry in the Philippines, and pray that you will experience the miracle of Jesus resurrection as the joy of a renewed commitment to Jesus’ gospel in your lives.
Mary, Paul and Rachel Marie
The 2010 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 143