January 9 is the most famous patronal feast in the Philippines. On this day, the Manila commercial district of Quiapo celebrates the Feast of the Black Nazarene. The image of the Christ as the Black Nazarene was carved in Mexico and brought to Manila on a galleon from Acapulco. Popular tradition says that the black colour of the icon was a result of a shipboard fire that singed the image.
The image arrived on May 31, 1606 and was enshrined in the Recollect church in Manila. It was later transferred to the Church of San Tolentino in Intramuros (this church no longer exists). The Archbishop of Manila in 1790 ordered the transfer of the image to Quiapo Parish church (now known as the Basilica Minore of the Black Nazarene) where it remains to this day.
The Black Nazarene image is brought in procession around the district, where hundreds of thousands devotees walking barefoot in a sign of humility, follow it. The January 9 procession commemorates the transfer of the image from the Recollect church in Intramuros to Quiapo, across the Pasig River. Because of the passage of time and that many generations of devotees over the centuries have touched it, a replica of the image is processed through Manila's streets rather than the original Mexican image. Thousands of people many wearing the image's maroon dress, throw white handkerchiefs or towels, which people on the 'carroza" of the icon, wipe on the image. Devotees claim that by able to touch the image, they will be healed. Many claim that they were physically healed, but much more have claimed they were spiritually healed.
Traditionally, only men were allowed to process with the image. But in recent years, women have been allowed.
In 2010 the police estimated 5-7 million people attended the procession and religious services of the feast. The Quiapo fiesta has become notorious for devotees being trampled to death. Police and health services in recent years have made precautions to prevent a stampede but still a few people die each year.
An observer to this religious devotion may note that it is fanaticism, and that it may be un Biblical and contrary to the Gospel. Several Catholic theologians have reflected on this devotion and write that it reflects on an understanding of Christ's incarnation and suffering by a vast majority of inarticulate people (people who weren't formally catechized). To this day a majority of devotees come from the working classes.
And so the Archdiocese of Manila has initiated a catechetical program that accompanies the Black Nazarene feast. Church authorities worked closely with laypeople organizations organizing the celebrations, reminding the Gospel basis of their devotion, proper religious behaviour to fellow devotees and the importance of interior reflection during the vigil. This was so successful that no one was trampled to death in 2010.
Foreign observers have noted that the Black Nazarene fiesta is the closest Catholicism gets to having a pilgrimage that is like to Muslims going to Mecca. They still ask the question, why are there so many pilgrims and devotees?
For me the name "Nazarene" is enough explanation. Jesus was first rejected in Nazareth by his own townsfolk. This immediately caught on with millions of poor and disadvantaged Filipinos over the centuries. They were in a real sense 'rejected" by the rest of Filipino society especially the rich. Also in a deeper sense, the need to PHYSICALLY touch the Christ really has a basis in the Gospel. In St Mark 5:24-34, we read about the woman with a flow of blood, and as such was made ritually unclean and rejected by her own people. She believed that if she just were able to touch Jesus clothes, she will be healed. She did and Jesus sensed the power drain out of him and asked "Who touched me?"
The woman touched not just the Jesus the Man but the God that is Jesus. And trembling, the woman told Jesus the truth. The woman was healed. Christianity is really an incarnational faith. There is really a need to touch another human being. The need to physically touch another human being is the first step in how we love!
If we are not afflicted, all our reason will tell us how unnecessary processing the Black Nazarene is. In the same way how it was not necessary for the woman to touch Jesus' clothes (she could have seen a doctor, which she really did!). But all this goes beyond reason.
Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams said it best in his homily at Lourdes on Saint Bernadette. He preached that Bernadette, who like the millions of Black Nazarene devotees was inarticulate and very poor, recognised that with the Blessed Virgin appearing "Here was life, here was healing, here was joy"
Rowan also writes what very well describes the faith of the millions of Black Nazarene devotees, where a devotion really is "heralding some future with Christ that we can't yet get our minds around."
The poor have a future with Christ which most of us can't get!
A blessed feast of the Black Nazarene to our readers!