The Feast of the Black Nazarene
Anson Yu talks about the beautifully chaotic Feast of the Black Nazarene and gives tips on how to touch the sacred statue.
In a metropolitan area as big as Metro Manila, you need a really big event to get the city into a near standstill. The one fiesta that actually manages to do just that is the Feast of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo. Part spectacle, part street party, and part religious celebration, it is a fiesta like no other. For one thing, it manages to bring together all sorts of people from all parts of the metro (as well as other parts of the country). What is even more amazing is that even if it is not an official holiday, more than a million people take time out from their daily schedule just to join this fiesta.
At the center of the fiesta is the image of the Black Nazarene. It was carved in Mexico was brought to the country in 1607. According to folklore, the image acquired its black color when the ship that it sailed on caught fire. But scholars have a different explanation as to why the image is black. According to them, images of Christ with black skin were common during the 17th century. They were especially popular in Spain and Mexico, the reason being that the color black then was associated with the fertility of the soil and of the womb.
Whatever connection the image has with Spain or Mexico is now very much obscured, as the Filipinos have made the Black Nazarene one of its own. In fact, Filipinos today very much identify with the image's dark skin and its posture of suffering. Devotion to the Senor Nazareno multiplied in the 19th century, when the Pope declared that anyone who prayed religiously to this image could have their sins erase here and in purgatory.
But more than just having their sins erased, many choose to join the fiesta in order to have their prayers heard. There are numerous testimonies as to how the Señor has answered the devotees' requests for protection, healing, and blessings. Because of this, many of those who join the fiesta do so out of a vow or panata. They are willing to put up with the crowd and inconvenience just to be able to catch the attention of the Señor Nazareno and plead for their prayers. They would even go as far as to walk the entire length of the procession barefooted.
Up until a few years ago, the procession was held within the vicinity of the Quiapo Church. But with the crowd growing every year, it now starts Quirino Grandstand at Rizal Park. After the early morning mass at 7:30am, the procession will move down Padre Burgos St. to MacArthur Bridge via Taft Avenue. Once the procession crosses the bridge, it will meander through the Sta. Cruz district till it reaches Quiapo Church. Some say that is in keeping more with the image's history, as it was originally housed in a church in Bagumbayan in what is now Rizal Park before it was moved to Quiapo.
Once the procession starts, each person would try and find a way to get close to the Señor Nazareno to have their prayers heard. This is easier said than done, due to the massive number of people that have gathered here. But for devotees, there are three ways one can gain access to the image. First is to try and grab the ropes in front of the carroza or procession carriage. If you are able to do so, you will then try and help pull the carriage back to the church. Because there are so many devotees pulling the carroza at the same time, many manage to do so only for a few minutes as it is very difficult.
Another way devotees get close to the carroza is to try and touch the end of the cross. This is a bit more difficult as it will involve you walking on the shoulders and backs of other devotees. The third method for reaching the carroza is for those who are too far. What they will do is to try and throw their handkerchiefs or towels on to the carroza. The marshals on the float will wipe them on the image and will try and throw them back to the rightful owner.
Fiesta participants have described it as literally swimming in people. But despite the ever-present danger of a stampede, the casualty rate is surprisingly low. During the 2011 procession, there was one death while around 400 were injured. One reason for the low rate of injury is that there are marshals that choreograph the movement of the crowd around the carroza. They are the ones who make sure that no one gets caught in the ropes of the carriage. The marshals are also the ones shouting instructions to the crowd to steer the carroza back to the church. Assisting the marshal are the local police and fire fighters. There are also 23 medical stations on hand to take over during any emergency.
The fiesta is seen as a beacon of hope, even during the most tumultuous times in our country's history. In the book Quiapo, the heart of Manila, a lady professor recalls one particular procession in 1970. This was at the height of the violent demonstrations against President Marcos. On the day of the feast of the Black Nazarene, a department store has just been set on fire and the power was out in the Quiapo and Sta. Cruz districts. Among the crowd, the professor spotted a young couple with their young daughter. The wife was pregnant and appears to be on the verge of giving birth. The professor remembered thinking "If the couple even with the their toddler was not afraid, why should I be?" "What seemed to move us was a faith in the Nazarene that defied the odds. We went through the same route, truly a candlelit procession punctuated by explosions and staccato shooting. Even the houses and establishments along the streets had closed shop for fear of being looted. Still the procession proceeded at an unperturbed pace," she says.
The parade is supposed to end when the image returns to Quiapo Church. It used to end at 7:30pm, but in recent years, the image doesn't get back to the church until 10pm or later, at which its return to the church is celebrated with yet another mass.
Even if you are unable to join the fiesta every January 9, you can get still a glimpse of it every Good Friday during Holy Week, as that is the only other time that the church brings out the image for a procession. But even on an ordinary day, the church is packed with people attending mass or coming to pray. You can still see the devotion of the devotees when they perform their panata by walking down the church aisle on their knees or when they wipe their handkerchief on the Black Nazarene. You may not agree with the theology behind their faith, but you can't help but admire as to how far they will express their faith.
How to get to Quiapo Church:
Take the LRT 1 to Carriedo Station, Quiapo Church is at the end of the Carriedo street.
Basta Pinas, Makulay ang Kasaysayan!
Anson Yu is a freelance writer and a home-grown Binondo boy. He gives walking tours of Binondo and other parts of Manila under Ivan Man Dy's Old Manila Walks.
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