I have been reading and seeing the coverage of the Feast of the Black Nazarene for many years but it wasn’t until about four years ago that I took interest in attending it. While stories of people getting hurt during the procession intimidated me, I learned that The Feast is celebrated on January 9, the night before, when the miraculous wooden statue of the Jesus of the Black Nazarene is removed from Quiapo church then transported to the Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park for the Holy Mass held during the early morning hours.
Last year, I met two friends who are devout pilgrims of the Black Nazarene and when they learned of my interest to attend, they graciously invited me to join their pilgrimage this year and to show me the ropes on celebrating The Feast and more importantly, navigating The Translacion procession safely.
We arrived at Rizal Park at dawn of January 9, 2016, when it was still dark.
I was just one of the many countless pilgrims who attended. Some had been there the day before to choose an ideal spot to listen to the Holy Mass, while others, like me, had just arrived.
THE HOLY MASS
As I neared the stage, the Holy Mass had already started and I could feel the air thick with prayer and religious fervour from the pilgrims around me. Towels were waved and twirled in the air as the Nazarene hymn was sung during the mass. This same towels were used to wipe on the Nazarene to imbibe its healing and miraculous powers. While it was possible to approach the Nazarene in the olden days, nowadays it’s impossible and quite dangerous with the jostling and shoving in this kind of street spectacle. The safer option was to wave the white towel because the Pilgrims believe that the power and miracle is also contained in the air and space when the Nazarene passes through.
While the Holy Mass was being heard, business of all sorts was also being transacted everywhere. Towels, candles, Nazarene religious paraphernalias, food and drink vendors were busy selling their wares to the devotees. True, this was a very solemn and religious affair for the devotees, but we couldn’t fault the many enterprising individuals that looked at this event as an opportunity to venerate and also make money on the side.
While walking, I learned from my friend a brief history of The Black Nazarene. Although I have heard it before on television, it was very nice and personal how my pilgrim friend passionately narrated to me the history he learned by heart as a devotee. He said that the life-sized Nazarene was transported by Augustinian Recollect missionaries in a galleon ship from Mexico and arrived in Manila in May 31, 1606. According to him, there are two prevailing theories why The Nazarene is black. One is that while the galleon ship was on travel, it caught fire but The Nazarene statue survived thus the darkened/charred skin. The second theory is that The Nazarene was deliberately carved in dark wood. But it doesn’t matter which version of the story is true. What really matters to the devotees is how The Nazarene survived at least three fires, and other catastrophes including an earthquake and WW2 in its more than 400 year old existence. And to the thousands of devotees and believers, this translates to indestructibility, healing miracles and fulfilment of prayers and dreams.It is very safe to say that everyone here came to attend to give thanks for their fulfilled prayers and dreams, restored health and miracles as well as to request for new prayers and for help. Others came here because they are curious, while some came here to party and have picnics with their families and witness this religious street spectacle that lands on television news annually. I for one, was here for some personal requests that I needed tremendous help with. As for my two pilgrim friends, they were here as their “panata” and yearly attendance to The Feast to show their gratitude for the fulfilment of a health miracle requested 8 years ago.In the streets where we were waiting for The Translacion to arrive in our area, the streets and sidewalks were all packed like sardines. Not being so tall, I had to continually be on my toes to see what was going on around me. From my vantage point, I could see the The Black Nazarene surrounded by guards and escorts (men in maroon shirts) on the ‘caroza’ or carriage inching its way towards us in The Translacion. The guards and escorts were there to protect The Nazarene. Actually since the life-sized statue of The Black Nazarene is quite old and fragile, the church thought it best to preserve the original longer by commissioning a copy that is now being used in The Translacion. It is said that the original head and hands are attached to the copy and this is the one being used in the Translacion. In the meantime, I looked around to observe my fellow pilgrims and what they were doing while we all waited.
Finally, after hours of waiting, He was in front of us, the ‘Poong Nazareno‘ was finally directly in front of us. The sea of people around me became more excited and jubilation exploded. People shouted his name with reverence as if calling an old friend so he could look at them. Towels twirled in the air with more urgency, others knotted their towels all together and tied it in a ball to throw to the “maroon men” with the hopes of being caught by them then rubbed at The Nazarene and then thrown back at the rightful owner. Some towels successfully gets thrown back, but many fall to the streets or gets picked up by other devotees.
The devotees believe that when these towels touch the body of the miraculous Nazarene, they will be restored to health, their prayers and dreams heard and granted, they become invincible or reunited with their first love. But there are many like me, who are not so brave and willing to risk physical harm who believe that it is enough to give thanks and say a prayer in the safe periphery and have my prayers still heard and granted. But no one can blame the more adventurous ones who attempt a “ pahawak”, wherein a devotee will risk all safety concerns for himself or others by throwing himself at and climbing over and above a sea of people and jostle with the “maroon men” to really touch The Nazarene or at least his clothing. He believes that if he achieves such a feat, his prayer will be granted.
In the olden days, the devotees used to fast for at least 12 hours before The Translacion that is why the devotees of the old were disciplined and not so energetic due to hunger. Nowadays, it’s different. Not only is fasting not strictly observed, there are some reports that there are people who attend The Feast drunk and even high on drugs.
After taking photos of the aftermath, we got hungry and we came upon Manila Hotel that was located nearby. The gates were locked but we informed the guards that we want to partake in the buffet breakfast. Aside from breakfast, it was also a great place to freshen up after being jostled, pushed and shoved during The Feast. After feeling fresh at last, we proceeded to the buffet area to finally break the fast by sharing a big bowl of Arroz Caldo to soothe our hungry tummies and ordered Daing na Bangus for each one.
I would consider my first attendance of The Feast as successful because I didn’t hurt myself or anyone as I previously feared. I too am thankful for my two pilgrim friends, who invited me and made sure my entry and desire to become a Nazarene devotee was soft and safe this first time. Without them, I would still be in the safety of my own living room watching The Feast on television.
I shall be back next year… armed with my camera and ladder. Viva Señor!