The Black Nazarene! At the crossroads of downtown Manila, Quiapo Church is known mainly for the devotion to the Black Nazarene.
Day after day, many Catholics hear mass in this church, that is cheek by jowl with crass commercialism, Western-style fast food, Chinese greasy spoons and the human dregs of the city, even more come on Fridays.
And on the First Friday, the rush to pray for heavenly intercession with all of life’s backbreaking problems is such that downtown traffic is always gridlocked during the morning and evening series of masses.
The object of this tremendous outpouring of devotion is, to any outsider, incomprehensible. For the Black Nazarene is a life size statue that depicts Jesus Christ clearly in torment from the crown of thorns on his brow and weighed down by the huge cross he drags.
The reason for the “Black Nazarene” name is that some long-vanished sculptor took it upon himself to render Jesus in skin tones of darkest brown, practically black to the casual eye.
Of course there are also Black Nazarene congregations in the U.S. and Canada but the Philippine devotion is resolutely Catholic and has absolutely nothing to do with racial pride.
What does it look like?
Nor does this departure from the traditional depiction of Jesus, as a kindly Semitic or blue-eyed Anglo, end there.
The Black Nazarene is dressed in a floor-length scarlet robe accented with white, medieval-era ruffles on the collar and cuffs, as well as gold stitching and lace here and there.
It is the kind of baroque, folk religion ensemble so beloved of Filipinos whose wives are wont to collect images of the Holy Infant of Prague, (“Santo Niño” locally), dressed in a multitude of ways. And it is precisely this image of Jesus Christ that drives thousands of Filipinos to visit Quiapo Church as often as they can and especially on the feast day of the Black Nazarene.
How did the Black Nazarene get to the Philippines?
The statue of the Black Nazarene was brought to Manila by an Augustinian Recollect friar on May 31, 1606, just three decades after Manila had been claimed for Spain.
The statue was first enshrined, under the patronage of St. John the Baptist, on September 10, 1606 in the first Recollect church in Bagumbayan field (now called Rizal Park).
Two years later, the Black Nazarene was transferred within the bigger Recollect church, dedicated to San Nicholas de Tolentino, inside the walled city of Intramuros.
The final move came with the approval of the Archbishop of Manila, Basilio Sancho de Santas Junta y Rufina, in 1787. The statue was moved to Quiapo Church, a parish in the middle of malarial swampland and placed once again under the patronage of St. John the Baptist.
A Joyful celebration?
Every January 9 since then, the designated feast day of the Black Nazarene is celebrated and not necessarily with an outpouring of joy either.
It is a time of penitence, of especially fervent prayer for forgiveness or desperate pleas for divine intercession.
On this day, droves of men (and only men) come dressed in the Nazarene’s colors and join the procession in atonement for crimes undiscovered or sins great and small.
All traffic has to be diverted away from Quiapo, posing a gigantic headache to authorities because it is the crossroads of downtown Manila, while a solid mass of men four lanes wide and at least three blocks long compete to pull the Nazarene’s wheeled float and come close enough to wipe their handkerchiefs or scarves on the suffering Christ.
Others who cannot barge in all the way, resort to tossing their towels at one of the acolytes on the carriage asking them to wipe it on the statue and toss it back so that somehow they may also receive the miracle they seek.
All this in the deeply-held belief that forgiveness and blessing will flow magically to them only while the image is on procession.
The Feast of the Black Nazarene every January 9
For all that, the procession is placid enough that serious injury is rare.
Clearly women could not possibly survive the crush of male bodies. Neither would any sane Filipina be caught in a horde of reputed ex-cons, hoodlums, kidnappers, robbers, swindlers, murderers and the odd prodigal son who never obeyed his parents until they passed away, maybe a tad unfair you can make your own mind up.
Men reserve for themselves the most physical of Filipino folk religion rituals, like the flagellation and crucifixions during Holy Week, on the grounds they sin more than their women do.
For more than 200 years the statue of the Black Nazarene has gone on procession every January 9th all around the Quiapo market district.
The physical strain, including walking to Quiapo barefoot from all over the metropolis, counts as penance.
As with most Filipino folk rituals, the act of contrition is such a desperate hope that it goes hand in hand with an earnest prayer for a life-changing miracle.
Even the Muslims from the mosque a scant three blocks away respect that and watch the rite just as seriously as the families of devotees do.