Thursday, January 13, 2011

Black Nazarene, the morning after

O, POONG Hesus Nazareno…

It is now also a tourist attraction, this recent annual orgiastic, mesmerizing ritual that saw millions of devotees, males mostly, taking to the streets on their bare feet with only their salty towels to protect them from the sun and intermittent January rain. If you’re a tourist in search of exotica and a faith experience, this one was good enough if you can’t be at the true-to-life crucifixions in Pampanga during the Holy Week.

Christmas Day was just two weeks ago and New Year’s Day a week ago, and already the harbinger of dolorous but colorful Holy Week-bloody Jesus carrying his cross was out on the street. A great way to jolt many from their post-holiday stupor.

Until yesterday, several days after the Jan. 9 feast of the Black Nazarene, people continued to flock to Quiapo Church in Manila, the home of the venerated statue that, according to police reports, had some 7 million devotees showing up for the procession from the Quirino Grandstand (where the statue had been taken the day before) and back to the church of St. John the Baptist, also known as the minor basilica of the Black Nazarene. The procession lasted 17 hours. Not four or five, for that short distance. Indeed, the number of people and the procession hours have more than doubled over the years. And this was no longer a one-day but a three-day event culminating at midnight of Jan. 9.

The streets of Manila were once again filled with the odor of sweat and clogged with steaming bodies clad in crimson. Many fainted on the wayside, not a few clambered and walked on the sea of heads and hurled themselves on the carroza carrying the statue and found themselves tossed in the air like pizza dough. But all that waving, rubbing and throwing back and forth of white towels, all that fainting and moaning were part of the tableau, so to speak, as was the main attraction, the Black Nazarene, and its many doll-like clones borne in procession in the urban haze.

No deaths this year, only 700-plus injured and fallen ill. And mounds of garbage. But, most of all, renewed faith for millions.

Unlike in the past years, this time I did not see (on TV) streamers of the feast’s earthly patrons—department stores, hopia bakers, fast food joints, restaurants, drug stores, etc. But as usual, in the crowd were self-styled bearded messiahs crying in the urban wilderness, Jesus look-alikes wearing scarlet robes, faux long tresses and crowns of thorns. You cannot not have them.

I had watched this Quiapo spectacle up close only once, many years ago when I went with some photojournalists to shoot. The crowd then was not as frightening as what we’ve been seeing in the recent years. Quirino Grandstand was not in the itinerary then. For safety, we decided to perch on the high concrete island near Plaza Miranda. You either joined or ran away from the force of bodies cascading in your direction. You had to decide whether to flee or faint and be engulfed, slow-mo, by the surging tide.
One could be carried away by all the heaving, pushing, fainting and humming of bodies. There is something surreal about the ocean of faces gazing up with that look of hope alloyed with silent desperation. It is awesome. There is an unseen force that propels, there is a spirit that pushes the crowd to move like a river desperately seeking a direction, like lava exploding to break free.
The Quiapo fiesta is clearly and mainly for the masa, the tormented, hopeless, voiceless citizens of our landscape. A participant must be sturdy or near-desperate and poor to shove and push in order to touch the tassel of the Nazarene’s cloak. Mostly the poor, because they know this place that lies between hope and despair.

Psychologists might see signs of mass hysteria or ASC (altered state of consciousness) manifested by the crowd. But for those seeking divine intervention in their difficult lives, theirs could be a mystical experience like no other. Rapture at high noon.

Religious fundamentalists could scoff at the devotion and cry idolatry. They do not understand that this is not only veneration but a cultural manifestation, an outpouring, a kind of catharsis. One must adjust one’s antenna to be able to listen to the pain of these humans groaning for redemption. One could only gasp at the devotees’ raw expression of their faith and affection. Sure, you can attempt to apply some theology. But this, no doubt, is mass popular religiosity at its most intense. Should I say, wildest?

The life-size image of the Black Nazarene carrying a cross has been in Quiapo church since 1787. The statue was brought to Manila by a Spanish priest in 1607 aboard a ship which caught fire. The statue got burned and blackened but was preserved for veneration. Many miracles have been attributed to the devotion to the Black Nazarene which is brought out for procession on its feast day and Good Friday.

Over the years, the observance of the feast has evolved in many ways that can be described as hysterical, frenzied, uncontrollable (or controlled by a few?), environment-unfriendly and life-threatening, more so than the overloaded pagodas in fluvial processions that have had their share of dead and near-dead. One insane move, one sociopath could cause a major disaster. Hundreds of law enforcers had to be fielded for days to secure the crowd.

What are the church authorities doing to temper all these down?

And so millions of devotees have made their annual pledge to the Poon, the icon and Lord of their lives. In Him they have entrusted their hopes, joys, desires, even their sinfulness. Millions have made manifest their thanks, proclaimed their helplessness and asked for favors from the tortured Man from Nazareth. Tomorrow is another day....