Despite the wet and cold climate the days before, the sun smiled upon the zealous crowd on the 9th of January. “A day of miracles,” the devotees called it, as the sacred image of Christ bearing the cross was paraded along the streets of Manila, blessing the city on which he’s been enthroned for four centuries. Though the capital has seen its share of protests and mass assemblies, nothing yet compares to the sight it saw on that fateful day: a 22-hour journey of devotion by a throng of eight million people, all intent on seeing the relic brought safely back home to his Church.
Local belief dictates that during processions, the relic refuses to ride any other carriage except his wheeled andas, which is then pulled throughout its route without any industrial aid. Miracle it is, then, that the Poong Hesus Nazareno reached its humble throne in Quiapo despite broken wheels, severed ropes and a few failed attempts at cutting the parade short.
Reliving the Traslacion
With thunderous applause and the waving of a multitude of white towels, the carriage made its way slowly through the sea of maroon-clad devotees, two ropes pulled religiously by able men while a crowd several million strong gravitates toward the relic as if by a magnet. Such is the yearly story of the Traslacion, a centuriesold tradition commemorating the transfer of the 17th century image of the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno from the walled city of Intramuros to the district of Quiapo in Manila.
The statue of the suffering Christ, robed in a gold-embroidered maroon garment and crowned with three golden rays, carries a wooden cross on its shoulders, reminiscent of Jesus Christ’s walk into Calvary. It was made by an anonymous Aztec sculptor and brought to the Philippines during the height of the galleon trade by Augustinian Recollect missionaries. Though folk tradition says that a fire charred the image to its present color, it is propagated that the Black Nazarene was painted by the maker akin to his skin color, then attained a darker shade upon its arrival in the country.
On January 9, 1787, at the request of the Archbishop of Manila, the Augustinian Recollect fathers turned the relic over to the Church of St. John the Baptist in downtown Quiapo. This event is now commemorated annually as the district’s feast day or fiesta, the highlight of which is the lavish hours-long procession that news programs describe as both enriching and dangerous. After numerous Papal sanctions and blessings, the Nazareno continues to receive devotion and a pious following in its famous home in Manila, having been officially renamed as the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene.
Retracing the footsteps of the Nazareno
For more than 200 years, the annual procession of the Nazareno de Quiapo was the center of celebrations in old Manila, which almost always happens right after the Christmas festivities and before the equally-anticipated veneration of the Santo Niños in the nearby districts of Tondo and Pandacan. During the feast day, the image was brought out of the church after a solemn mass and paraded through the old streets of Manila, making the rounds of quaint households as far as the seat of government in Malacañan Palace. The streets of Arlegui, Quinta and Villalobos, while famous as market places and trade stations, have now become synonymous with the festival as part of the busy and crowded stretch of roads through which the Nazareno will pass.
During the 402nd year of the statue in 2009, however, the clerics of the Church organized a bigger parade owing to the growing cult of faithful. The day before the procession, the image was transported to Manila’s bay-side formerly known as Bagumbayan, which now houses an array of historical spaces and landmarks, the prime glory of which is a monument to the country’s national hero, Jose Rizal. Overnight, a prayer vigil participated in by a growing flock of devotees prepared them for the upcoming Eucharistic celebration and the tumultuous spectacle the next day, which then utilized the new six-kilometer route that began with a wide set of roads and ended with the old route traversed during the Spanish era.
Three years later, I found myself waiting for the statue in the middle of the long road that was part of the 2009 addition. The route has changed minimally over the past years, but worthy of notice were the larger crowd and the lengthier period of time the image takes to get from one point of the route to another. People of different ages and all walks of life shared the religious experience, from children tagged along by their parents to old people carried nervously by their stronger kin. The Traslacion has become more than a pious display in honor of a venerated relic, but also a moment of camaraderie for families and friends who share the same faith.
The sons and daughters of the Nazareno
In his homily for the Nazareno’s feast day, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle spoke of the “drunkenness and abuse on sins of the flesh” by many Filipinos before a crowd that emulated the very sufferings of Christ bearing his cross. As I walked across the grass-fields fronting the grounds, I saw many a participant on their bare feet, pants folded up to their knees, hands clenched around used handkerchiefs and towels bearing the image of the Christ. While deeply spiritual in nature, this practice of walking on bare feet has worked very well in lessening injuries and getting safely near the statue’s very carriage.
I bore witness to a stampede that broke the very barricades that protected the Nazareno and his Andas, a term derived from the Spanish word andar, meaning “to go forward.” To the aid of the Andas came the Hijos del Nazareno Hesus (The Sons of Jesus the Nazarene), a group of men clad in gold tasked to take care and protect the image during events much like what I was seeing. With the statue bolted in place and a group of forty or so Hijos surrounding him within the vehicle, two ropes were released and uncoiled. Men of strength and ability take turns in touching and pulling the rope while the Hijos on board either catch bunches of towels which are wiped onto the statue’s surface, or assist devotees in having a touch of the relic’s elements. All these in thanksgiving for the blessings they’ve acquired and the belief that all their other prayers will be heard.
In my chance to walk alongside many of the participants, I came across an old woman who believed she was healed of her diseases, a barren housewife allegedly granted with children and other devotees whose prayers were supposedly answered. Their unwavering faith is the very reason why aggrieved believers still walk on their knees along the aisles of Quiapo Church, why there’s traffic in the area every Friday and why there was no stopping anyone—man or woman— from joining such a perilous procession. Some, however, are content in receiving holy water during the Mass (Bendisyon), lighting a prayer candle before the altars (Pasindi), participating in the robing of the image (Pabihis), and having a kiss of the Nazareno’s feet (Pahalik).
A center of faith and commerce
While the history of the district is tied directly to the Church and the image it houses, Quiapo is also notorious for its bustling commercial presence with the sale of religious items, prayers by proxy, fortune telling, magical talismans, herbal cures and abortifacients. Like any vicinity patterned around a typical Spanish pueblo, the market is where the Church is.
Permanent fixtures selling appliances and furniture line the street-side while carts of fruits and jewelries occupy the very middle of the street, disabling traffic for vehicles and impeding the smooth flow of pedestrians to and from the Church. Rice cakes are sold by the slice and noodles by the bowl in one street, while in another, statuettes and souvenirs are stacked for visitors to see.
Replicas of the Black Nazarene come in different sizes with different accessories. A small replica with a plain maroon gown costs roughly $4, while a bigger one with a richly-designed garment sells for $2 more. Necklaces with pendants of saints and the Blessed Virgin are sold by the piece, while candles of different colors are sold by the bundle for a mere 50 cents. Of course, maroon and white handkerchiefs for devotional purposes are sold here, for the same price as the bundle of candles.
With business as festive as the mood, this marketplace sure has a lot to offer. After a day’s worth of roaming, I then sat atop the church’s balcony, eagerly anticipating what everyone in the historic Plaza Miranda is waiting for.
The emblem of salvation
Manila is like a living museum of the Catholic faith in the Pacific. Churches dedicated to many saints and titles dot the city’s many towns much like it is in the Italian capital of Rome. But more importantly, the expression of faith is still alive within the country’s more than seventy million Catholics, with the traditions of the Nazareno de Quiapo as a living proof of its existence.
The sun shone early the next day, much like the day prior when the procession started. At six in the morning of the 10th of January, the Black Nazarene reached its home amidst thunderous shouts of “Viva!” and the waving of towels, ending the image’s longest parade in recorded history, and a day of waiting for millions of devotees. Now at rest upon seeing the statue back in its place, the Church’s guests burst into song as I said a silent prayer:
Our Father, Jesus Nazarene, We Honour Thee! Our Father, Jesus Nazarene, We Glorify Thee!
A Tale of Multiple Nazarenes
Rumors say that when the Black Nazarene arrived in the Philippines in 1606, an identical statue came with it during its voyage across the seas. This ‘brother’ statue is said to have been destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945.
In fact, two Nazarenes are currently housed in the Church of Quiapo. In order to protect the original 1606 statue from Acapulco, Mexico, its head and hands were attached to the torso of a commissioned replica, while the original torso received a copy of the detached elements. These Nazarenes are used interchangeably during the annual processions, with the exception of the 400th anniversary celebrations in 2007, in which the original pieces were reattached to be paraded during the Traslacion.
During the yearly procession of January 9, one of Quiapo’s two Nazarenes gets pulled through the streets of Manila while the other sits high on the pedestal of the Church altar. On the other hand, the replica of the statue used previously during the Traslacion was given by the rectory of Quiapo to the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao, for the devotion of Catholics in the region. As of today, as many as four replicas are tucked away in a special area beside the Church for veneration by the faithful. The day before the annual feast day, a procession of replicas from many families and towns is also hosted along the perimeter of the Church as part of the week-long celebrations. A similar statue, meanwhile, is housed in the town of Capalonga, Camarines Norte. Made in the Philippines, the image is said to have dripped real blood and is revered much like the image enthroned in Manila. Its feast day occurs on May 12-13, a good four months after the festivities in Quiapo.
If the Church’s riches were measured by souls, the treasure acquired by the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene through its miraculous image would be marked as priceless, with the number of participants in the Traslacion doubling every year. Who knows how many more souls have been touched by the suffering Christ, whose agony we Filipinos see as a reflection of present-day society?