Feast of the Black Nazarene – Philippines

At the geographic center of Manila lies Quiapo, the third congressional district of the Philippine city. More commonly associated by locals and foreigners alike with all the cheap wares you can buy under the sun, Quiapo, by its nature, resists any attempts at neat categorization and logical order. That’s why it’s rather surprising, especially to the uninitiated traveler, that the district has kept alive — and for a very long time — a history of fervent religious devotion.

From the surging crowds that flock to Quiapo Church to receive mass every Sunday to the numerous stalls selling small statues of saints and other paraphernalia, Quiapo does not run out of religious curiosities to feast one’s eyes on. And if these occasions were not proof enough, the traveler only has to visit Quiapo on the ninth of January. On this day every year, millions of extremely devout Filipino Roman Catholics, recently quoted to the figures of six to eight million strong, take part in the procession known as the Feast of the Black Nazarene. It may just be the greatest show of faith in modern history, unparalleled anywhere else in the world in its zeal.

Black Nazarene
Black Nazarene: a wooden, life-sized figure of Jesus Christ. Photo by Denvie Balidoy

The Feast of the Black Nazarene, or, in Tagalog, Pista ng Mahal na Itim na Nazareno, venerates a wooden, life-sized figure of Jesus Christ, frozen in the action of bearing his cross on the way to Mount Calvary. The statue had survived a galleon ship trip to Manila all the way from Acapulco, Mexico. As a matter of fact, it is the figure’s remarkable indestructibility that believers attach its holy, healing mystic powers to. According to many Filipino believers, just touching the statue briefly can cure the person who touched it of all illnesses. How this belief came to be is just as interesting and worthy of note as the current feast that Filipino Catholics celebrate today.

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The statue of the Black Nazarene arrived in Manila under the care of the first group of Augustinian Recollect friars on May 31, 1606. Even then, the statue already looked like it had been made from a dark wood, and one of the main theories about the color of the Nazarene was that it had been sculpted purposely in that way by the Mexican sculptor who built it. But, the statue of the Black Nazarene was never intended to have the ebony color it has today. The statue originally depicted a fair-completed Jesus Christ. It turned into a dark color because it survived a fire aboard the galleon ship that transported it from Mexico to the Philippines. Though it was charred, the statue’s wood remained smooth and through this managed to hold its place for worship in the first Recollect church in Bagumbayan. The church, located in an area which is today part of Luneta Park, was formally recognized on September 10, 1606 and given the patron saint John the Baptist, or San Juan Bautista. From then on, there have been numerous accounts of miracles happening that revolve around the figure of the Black Nazarene.

Camarines Norte Church
Camarines Norte Church s famous for its Black Nazarene that was said to have been sculpted on top of a rocky mountain called Punta de Jesus. Photo by Shubert Ciencia

The Black Nazarene would not always remain in its original church. In a matter of two years, the statue had been relocated to the second and larger Recollect church of the Augustinians, dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, or San Nicolas de Tolentino which is located in Intramuros. During its stay in the Recollect church for Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, the statue of the Black Nazarene continued to be worshipped by the masses. On April 21, 1621, after fifteen years of worship by the local people, the Roman Catholic Church finally granted the Confraternity of the Most Holy Jesus Nazarene to the Recollect Fathers in the city of Manila, who had previously been promoting the worship of the Black Nazarene to achieve what they had wanted to make: a religious brotherhood dedicated to the Black Nazarene. The confraternity, or brotherhood, officially gained the Papal approval under Pope Innocent X on April 20, 1650. The statue of the Black Nazarene also received its veneration as a Sacramental, or a religious object that can receive or transfer grace, in that year, an additional achievement for the Recollect Fathers. The Black Nazarene was moved for a second time. Under orders from the Archbishop of Manila, the image of the Black Nazarene was moved to Saint John the Baptist Parish, more popularly known as Quiapo Church, in the year 1787. The statue of the Black Nazarene resides in the church to this day.

It would seem that to survive one fire was enough to be considered a miraculous object. However, the statue of the Black Nazarene survived through two more fires after its arrival in Manila. These were the two great fires that destroyed Quiapo Church in the years 1791 and 1929, yet despite the substantial damage to the church, the fires somehow left the image of Jesus still intact and in very good condition for worship. Other catastrophes seem to have the same harmless effects. To date, the statue of the Black Nazarene has survived the earthquakes of 1645 and 1863 and the 1945 Liberation of Manila, one of the worst sites of bombing and urban warfare during the Pacific Theater of World War II. For those keeping count, that makes up a total of six catastrophes in all, natural and otherwise. To add even more color to its more than four hundred years of existence in the Philippines, the statue of the Black Nazarene had also survived through a left cheek damaged by a gun incident during the late 1990s.

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The statue of the Black Nazarene receives three processions in a given year. The most important procession takes place on the Feast of the Black Nazarene, January 9, and the other two, on New Year’s Day and on Good Friday. The celebration on Good Friday, however, is reflective and mournful in contrast to the gregarious celebrations of the feast day and New Year’s Day, both of which tend to be a conglomeration of a street party, spectacle, and religious festival.

Feast of the Black Nazarene
Moments from the Feast of the Black Nazarene. Photo by Marc Reil Gepaya

Preparations for the feast begin at times even before the feast day itself. During the night or dawn before the feast day begins, the statue of the Black Nazarene is taken out of Quiapo Church — sometimes in secrecy, sometimes publicly– and transported to the Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park. There, the Archbishop of Manila presides over a Holy Mass that starts early in the morning, around six o’clock. After the Holy Mass, the procession officially starts. As the day stretches, the statue of the Black Nazarene will make its way through the streets of Manila in a predetermined route back to Quiapo Church, seemingly buoyed up and through the waves of people. People who are striving to bridge the densely filled gap between themselves and the Most Holy Jesus Nazarene. The route that the Black Nazarene embarks on during the feast day commemorates the Translacion, or transfer, of the statue from its second place of home, the church dedicated to San Nicolas de Tolentino in Intramuros, to its final shrine in Quiapo Church. The officials of Quiapo Church take great measures to protect and preserve the statue of the Black Nazarene, since it is now such an important part of the church’s history and attraction. Guards and escorts are present in every procession to ensure that the crowds of believers, in their fervor, do not damage the figure of the Nazarene. An even more thorough measure against damage and insurance for future Feasts of the Black Nazarene, a copy of the figure had been commissioned into creation by the church. It is this copy, with parts of the original affixed onto it, that parades on the streets of Quiapo during the three processions. The head and hands of the original are exchanged with those of the copy, so that there are essentially two Black Nazarenes that can be paraded alternately: one with the head and hands of the original and the other with the torso of the original. The year of 2007 marked a special time for the Feast of the Black Nazarene. The original Black Nazarene was paraded in its entirety to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its arrival in the Philippines.

Black Nazarene 2012
Moments from the Feast of the Black Nazarene. Photo by Marc Reil Gepaya

The crowds starts to form early in the procession. As time progresses it becomes impossible to see anything but the heads and upper bodies of thousands upon thousands of devotees. Like Christ on the road to Calvary and also as act of penance and show of humility, barefoot men clad in maroon, the color associated with the Black Nazarene, carry the statue of the Black Nazarene through the streets in a carriage known as the “andas,” a word that originates from the Spanish word “andar,” meaning “to go forward.” The golden red carriage bearing the figure of the Nazarene is also known as a “Caroza.” The Caroza has had a long history alongside the Black Nazarene; the structure has been used to carry the Nazarene through the same streets for almost two hundred years in the practice of Pagpasan, which is the act of carrying the wood of the carriage or pulling the rope the carriage is attached to. Male devotees shoulder the carriage through the crowd with helpers called namamasan. The namamasan, thick manila ropes in hand, pull the carriage bearing the Black Nazarene through the tightly packed crowd, inching the procession along its way on the streets of Quiapo.

Despite traditionally being a task for men, women, in recent years, have been allowed to participate in the physical task of Paspasan, though only to pull the ropes of the carriage. With the carriers and namamasan busy with bearing the Black Nazarene through the crowd, the millions of other devotees gravitate in a massive form towards the statue to practice the Pahawak, or touching the figure or the garb of the Black Nazarene. Many believers attempt this feat with a focused determination. Getting close to the dark form of the Nazarene, close enough to touch it, means perhaps experiencing a miracle through the mystical properties of the figure. Others devotees throw towels and handkerchiefs — some even bearing a printed image of Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns– to the guards and escorts surrounding the Black Nazarene and instruct them to rub the cloths on the figure. Believers hope that some of the healing powers of the Black Nazarene may transfer to these articles, making their owners “suwerte,” or lucky, in life; impervious to “kulam,” or witchcraft; or restored to health, if they happen to be sick.

As the procession continues through its route, some devout Filipinos opt instead to attend the hourly masses that take place in Quiapo Church. Once the Black Nazarene procession nears the church, mobs of people form into long lines within the church near the altar for a chance to touch or kiss the foot of the Black Nazarene. Once the figure is again restored to its usual place in the church, the practice known as the Pahalik, the act of kissing the statue of the Black Nazarene, commences. Millions of hands reach out to caress the Black Nazarene or kiss it, hoping that they will be cured of whatever may ail them. Such fervent devotion to an image of Christ can be puzzling to the outsider, and even other Filipino Catholics view the devotees of the Black Nazarene as a curious breed. This view is compounded even more when one considers that every year devotees are injured. The most commonly recorded injuries by medical teams servicing the procession are cuts and bruises, from the jostling that occurs around the Black Nazarene; and exhaustion and dehydration, from the packed spaces and the relentless presence of mobs. There have also been cases of people dying; the causes are varied from heart attacks to excessive bodily injuries. Here is a glimpse of the darker side of the jubilation. No matter the dangers involved, however, believers still go in large numbers to celebrate.

According to the male devotees of the Black Nazarene, who call themselves “Hijos del Senor Nazareno,” or Sons of the Lord Nazarene, it is only their intense devotion to the Catholic faith that pushes them to do anything they can to benefit the Black Nazarene and to touch the figure, so it may bless them. Physical injuries become minor discomforts to the devotees, since they feel compelled by their duty to the Black Nazarene. Many devotees end up identifying with the Passion of Jesus Christ. All the trials and tribulations of Christ on his way to his crucifixion –the wounds, the crown of thorns, the oppressive weight of his cross– seem to parallel the hardship and poverty that the devotees experience in their daily lives. The Black Nazarene being a statue of Christ at the moment of his suffering to reach Calvary is an image that resonates strongly with the Sons of the Lord Nazarene.

Black Nazarene Procession
The procession makes its way along the streets of Manila. Photo by Dave Deluria

Through media exposure and word of mouth, the Feast of the Black Nazarene has become the largest religious festival in the Philippines today. What was once a celebration that only attracted people within Metro Manila now pulls people from all over northern and southern Luzon in celebration and broadcasts to Filipinos throughout the nation. It has gained such a large following that Filipino Catholics overseas have organized similar processions all over the world, making replicas of the Black Nazarene housed in Quiapo and parading them around their parish district, with a flock of devotees following with prayers. Recently, the Feast of the Black Nazarene of 2012 was recorded to be the longest celebration of the event in the history of the Quiapo Church. The celebration, from the Eucharistic Mass in the Quirino Grandstand to the statue’s eventual return to Quiapo Church, lasted twenty-two hours. Take into note that in previous year, the procession for the feast day lasted on average only ten to twelve hours. The grip of the Black Nazarene on the faithful of the Philippines is naturally most apparent at the center of it all: Quiapo. Quiapo Church, which is still known by a few as Saint John the Baptist Parish, is now officially known as the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene. After every mass held in the church, believers acknowledge the Black Nazarene with a clapping of hands.

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Furthermore, throughout the whole year, novenas are held in the church every Friday in honor of the Black Nazarene. The stature of the Nazarene has grown to such mythic height that it has overshadowed the original patron saint of Quiapo Church. Never has the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, celebrated on June 24, received such fervent commemoration as the Feast of the Black Nazarene in recent memory. Whether it is out of religious devotion or general curiosity, a visit to Quiapo on the feast day of the Black Nazarene is sure to give a glimpse into the religious zeal that has played such an important role in the history of the Philippines and continues to influence its culture.

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