While the rest of Christians around the world try to savor the last remaining days of the Christmas season, in the Philippines, it seems people are already walking the Way of the Cross.
The 9th of January is the Feast Day of the Black Nazarene. It is a local devotion to a life-sized, dark-skinned image of Jesus Christ carrying the cross. Compared to the usual, Westernized depictions of Jesus, the Black Nazarene has brought Christ to a more relatable level to Filipinos. The date of the annual procession, attended by more than a million devotees anually, marks the day when the revered image was transferred from the Bagumbayan area to the Minor Basilica in Quiapo, Manila. Every year, Filipinos have re-enacted that solemn relocation through a roughly 4-kilometer procession that takes more than 15 hours to finish due to the massive crowds. In 2012, the procession lasted 22 hours.
The devotees to the Nazarene are mostly poor, working class Filipinos and they undergo remarkable acts of sacrifice as their way of proving their devotion to the image. Since many of them testify that the statue is miraculous, devotees try their best to approach the statue and its carriage and wipe it with cloth garments during the course of the procession. Some march barefoot in solidarity with Christ who walked the same way to Golgotha. For people who live in communities en route to the procession, they prepare food and drinks and hand these out to the devotees. While for others, simply accompanying the image in its hours-long journey back towards its abode at the Minor Basilica of Quiapo is sacrifice enough. For all of them, it is not enough to worship and thank the Lord through words. Their gratitude and love must show in the fervor of their devotion.
The devotion, however, is not without its critics. Many attack the procession as an example of folk Catholicism, or a practice of mixing pagan beliefs with the doctrines of the Church. But for Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, the devotion is a testimony of poor Filipinos, a faith expression born out of the poverty and misery they endure daily. For the Cardinal, the people’s desire to touch the Nazarene and cling to its processional carriage is a manifestation of their need to clutch on to God’s love when one has absolutely nothing left to hold on to.
In his homily last year, Tagle shared some words of comfort to his flock. “We think that we are the ones touching Christ. But he is the one that holds us, carries us. When you feel that all hope has left your grasp, have faith. You are held by Christ, you are carried by Christ. And while he carries you, he thanks God because you are not heavy, you are not a burden.”
For this year’s celebration, Tagle uses the feast to remind Philippine authorities and its supporters to show compassion to the poor who have been targeted in the government’s campaign against illegal drugs. “[The suffering Christ] is not ashamed to be seen with the poor and the outcasts who are rejected as sinners. He made them feel as if he is not different from them. He says: I am here to be one with you.”
Whether it is Christians risking to celebrate Christmas in a devastated Church in Syria or the poor showing great love to God through their acts of sacrifice, these images of our Christian brothers and sisters is always a reminder that as much as they need our help, their extraordinary faith is a gift and perhaps a challenge for us who are in more fortunate situations. As we pray for the safety of everyone participating in today’s procession, may the devotion to the Black Nazarene be a reminder to the world that God walks with people who courageously bear their cross as a way of expressing their faith, love and devotion to Christ and His Church in need.