Text and photos by Beata Carolino

There has, so far, been no study which correlates the attendance in the Jan. 9 Feast of the Black Nazarene to the actual living conditions in the country.

An estimated three million people were present during the overnight vigil and procession at Quirino Grandstand and Quiapo Church – around three percent of the country’s population.

The Black Nazarene is over 200 years old. A statue given as a gift by the Spaniards in 1606, it is said to have been brought by a Mexican priest aboard a ship which caught fire. The statue turned dark, but otherwise remained in good condition. People since believed that the Black Nazarene performs miracles to those who are able to touch it, thus it has been revered by many since 1787.

The scene from below was this: families lined up, most of them sleeping on the grounds of Quirino Grandstand in Manila. A few had tents and blankets, a lot had food to sell, and many others built shrines to house Black Nazarene replicas which they brought from their homes. Children ran along the narrow spaces between rows of sleeping bags and banigs at 12 midnight until dawn.

Some hundred meters away stood the stage where a program was ongoing. Priests were reciting homilies about the importance of prayer and faith, which were welcomed by only a few ears.

White and green fences divided this rather “peaceful” section of the attendees to the ones in front. There were entrances at both sides of the stage to host the line of people who patiently and unshakingly waited for their turn to have a glimpse of the Poon – a line which extended to Roxas Boulevard until Luneta Park.

Devotees also flocked around the many Black Nazarene replicas near the stage, throwing towels at the children who wiped them — a practice done for more luck, said one devotee. In this section, as well, were many of the so-called “legitimate” devotees of the Black Nazarene. They were only a few hundred, and were clad in uniforms per group and were barefoot. They called themselves the Hijos del Nazareno – “frontliners” who did the actual salubong – the protectors of the Black Nazarene.

Onstage, people rejoiced at the thought of finally approaching the Poon. The elderly who were too weak to line up talked to some members of the Hijos to allow them to touch the relic. There were infants—some looked like they were born just the day before—as well. There were children. There were students still clad in their high school uniforms.

And finally: the Black Nazarene’s cross and foot, which everyone anticipated to touch. After hours and kilometres of lining up, they were allowed only a few seconds to spend with the Poon.

There were at least two protectors that regulated the crowd which swarmed Jesus’ image. Children were carried to kiss the foot. Some carried tens of towels to wipe by the Poon’s foot, which they will bring to their families at home. Some wheelchairs users were even carried just so they could touch the image.

Many of them cried right after and refused to leave, which caused a commotion.

“Bilisan po natin, marami pa pong gustong humawak sa Poon. Wala sa tagal iyan—nasa dasal! (Let’s make it fast; other people also want to touch the Poon. It’s not about the length of time (you touch), it’s in your prayers!), yelled one of the protectors.

The view from atop the grandstand was spectacular. To the right was Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle celebrating the holy mass, prior to which he made the devotees promise that they would finish it, to which they replied to him a resounding “Viva! Viva!”

To the left were many of the uniformed devotees fueled by their burning intent to come closer to the Poon. But the line which led to the foot of the cross was cut short to make way for the mass, which angered the group. They reeled at the three rows of protectors who guarded the fences with their lives, alongside policemen and military.

In a few moments, their will won over the strength of the barriers as they stormed their way into the stage. Archbishop Tagle began singing The Lord’s Prayer and the Nazareno’s hymn to try to calm the mob, but to no avail. The crowd surged towards the Poon, ignoring the archbishop’s plea.

How could they calm down? It was that moment for them: that moment where they were all together, strong enough and willing enough in trying to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. After all, it meant only a touch, long hours of suffocation and a few kilometres of endurance to feel the spark of even a little prosperity, to have a chance to cure a disease, or to be protected from disasters.

They were willing to go through even the sharp criticisms of those who weren’t there, those who say that their devotion is a false one because the devotees couldn’t even finish the mass or listen to the bishop’s words, all for the sake of touching the image of Jesus in his sorrow, in his darkest. For in that way, they thought, they might have even a little hope closer to the light.

Year 2021 marks the 500th year of Catholicism in the country. The prayers during the time of the Spaniards stands the same today: calling for salvation from the present, the end of oppression, and the triumph of the weak.

The heavens has been hearing the same desperate cries for centuries. Given the years that have passed, it’s a wonder why the very same picture of oppression remains.

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