Once a year during the Feast of the Black Nazarene, the lines that draw the rich from the poor are blurred. The power suits and Italian leather shoes come off and devotees walk the streets of Quiapo, Manila, barefoot and humbled. A sea of men, women and children wearing the distinct maroon and yellow, the colors of the King of Nazareth, brave any and all weather conditions to take part in this religious procession – one that goes as far back as 400 years. What is it that drives people to the Nazareno year in and year out?
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country. This is easily seen in the way the country celebrates Christmas and Lent. But neither of these two events on the calendar have the same show of fervor and devotion as the Feast of the Black Nazarene. In a country of around 100 million people, having a religious procession with 11 million devotees in attendance speaks volumes of how Filipinos feel about this specific Catholic celebration.
To put the number of attendees into perspective, the population of the whole Metro Manila Area is around 12 million. To help keep order during the procession, the authorities fielded 10,000 policemen in Quiapo and the procession’s route. Schools located within Manila and the immediate environs suspended classes in anticipation of the heavy and slow-moving traffic.
Opiate of the Masses
The procession of the Black Nazarene is a sea of humanity, pounding wave upon wave upon the carroza bearing the image of the Black Nazarene. The devotees wear maroon and walk barefoot during the procession. This is their penance for their sins, emulating Jesus Christ when he carried the cross.
The ordinary devotee of the Black Nazarene is an ordinary Filipino Catholic. That is the only description which can explain this devotion. This is the product of the Philippine brand of Catholicism coupled with Filipino fanaticism and a belief system which has been in place since before the friars came to these islands. The devotion is no different from that shown by Filipinos who go to Antipolo to have their new cars blessed, or those who go on pilgrimage to Manaoag, Pangasinan as a fulfillment of a pledge.
Devotion and Commitment
Foreigners often wonder why so many people attend the procession. Well, for one, Filipinos like their processions big and loud. During Holy Week, towns would have all their holy images out on carriages in processions which start from the local church and finish at the church, usually just as the last of the life-size images leave to follow the procession route. This is usually true no matter how large (or small) the town is.
To say that the large number of people in attendance at the procession of the Black Nazarene is different from other fiestas, is to say that the two sides of a coin are different from one another. At first glance, that is true, there is a difference. But at its core, these are all the same.
The same people who attended last year’s procession will most likely be part of next year’s attendees plus one or more converts. This is the reason why the numbers swell yearly. Attending the Black Nazarene procession is not a one off thing for devotees; it’s something that must be carried out year after year until you are physically not able to do so. They travel from far off provinces to fulfill this mandate. Whether they do it for thanksgiving or to ask for a specific request is a different story.
This year is said to be the 406th year of the Black Nazarene and there is no foreseeable end to this time-honored tradition. The image has braved fires and other man-made catastrophes and still stands as a testament of how deeply rooted Filipino Catholic faith is. Just to be clear, the devotion to the Black Nazarene is not a blind devotion to an image made of wood and porcelain. It is a show of deep love, supplication and prayer for the human condition. This is not a hajj, which a believer has to take at least once in a lifetime. The devotee who attends the procession and has his face towel or handkerchief wiped upon the statue has a token or keepsake which he has with him always.
Besides the rosary, the holy medals and scapular, this piece of cloth which they own reminds them that they were there at the procession. That he braved the masses of believers like himself, and that he is hanging on to his prayer to the Black Nazarene. It is a physical manifestation of a prayer and the promise of a miracle.
One with the Suffering Christ
Unlike other pilgrimages and vigils which are meditative and contemplative, the procession attendee is one man swimming with and against a sea of other devotees who want to get near the carriage bearing the Black Nazarene. It is a grueling task. Before anyone can get near, he would have been elbowed and stepped upon, all unintentionally. To call this a procession is to call the Crusades a leisurely walk to Jerusalem.
Through all the hardships during the procession, the devotee takes away a fact of life which he already knows: life is hard, your wishes may or may not come true or be given to you, but it helps to have a religious bearing or a patron saint to lead your way. Sociologists will dig deep into the psyche of the nation to help explain the need for the procession of the Black Nazarene. Always, the explanation boils down to the inherent religiosity of the ordinary Filipino.
Filipinos have been guilty of being more Catholic than the Pope. That is true. They are also more religious than monks. Without any stretch of the imagination, it is easy to see that a million people gathered in one spot is a formula for chaos. Ten or eleven million devotees can easily turn into a mob. But they don’t. They have one goal, and that is for their prayers to be heard, through the intercession of the Black Nazarene.
A miracle at the end of the day
Health cures, personal financial turnarounds, and various other miracles have been attributed to the Black Nazarene. For some, this may be the reason why they join the procession. But for true believers, their show of devotion is reward enough for them.
If this was any other procession, there would have been more injuries, or even fatalities. Even fiesta celebrations at Tondo, a neighboring area of Quiapo, can result in violence and death. But violence rarely happens during the procession. That it does not is a miracle in itself.
Published at: http://manila.coconuts.co