It may seem odd to think of Holy Week right after Christmas. However, there is a tradition in the Philippines that remembers Jesus on the way to Calvary and of his mother meeting him along that way.
The Feast of the Black Nazarene — more correctly, the Traslación (for “translation” or “transfer”) is a Jan. 9 feast. Its celebration actually started on New Year’s Eve, when its novena began. The central feast takes place in Manila and is so popular that millions of people turn out to take part in a 4.3-mile procession that lasts for hours.
This year, though, they will not have the procession. It had to be canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Msgr. Hernando Coronel, rector of Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, commonly called “the Quiapo Church,” told Catholic World Report late last October that the Black Nazarene statue will be displayed on the church’s balcony for two weeks before the feast instead in the traditional procession. This is allowing pilgrims to gather for prayer before the statue at a safe distance. People have still been gathering in and around the church since before Christmas.
The feast of the Black Nazarene centers on a life-sized statue of Jesus, dressed in a maroon robe, wearing a crown of thorns and kneeling under the weight of his black cross. The image also wears a gold chain, representing the scourging, and a belt that says “Nazarene.” Its black wig is made from plaited abaca, (banana fiber).
A dark color
The statue itself is very dark in color, resulting in its name. It is known in Filipino as Mahal na Itim na Nazareno and, in Spanish, as Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno (Our Father, Jesus the Nazarene).
Tradition says that the wood of the statue is black because it was burned when the ship carrying it from Mexico to the Philippines caught fire. However, this may not be the case. The statue it is made of mesquite, which is dark by nature. Black mesquite is also a hardwood.
The Black Nazarene, originally brought from Mexico by Augustinian missionaries to the Philippines, arrived more than 400 years ago. The ship carrying it arrived in Manila in 1618. (The statue is believed to be a bit older, perhaps dating to 1606, and its sculptor is anonymous.)
The Jan. 9 feast actually celebrates the statue’s move from its original church site of San Nicolas de Tolentino because that church had twice been destroyed by earthquakes. Overall, the statue has been through fires, earthquakes, floods, typhoons and even Word War II bombings. The move to what is now called the “Black Nazarene Basilica” in the parish of St. John the Baptist in Manila happened on Jan. 9, 1868.
The January feast recreates that journey from one church to another. Moving an important religious item, such as a relic or a statue to which miracles have been attributed, is a major event in the Catholic Church and it is often recreated annually. Such a move is officially called “a translation.”
With the Black Nazarene, in a normal year, people — often barefoot and wearing maroon and yellow — will line the streets along the way to see the statue and try to touch part of it or the cart (ándas) it travels upon. To do so is believed to be the source of miracles and graces. Walking with the statue, especially barefoot, is done as a form of penance. However, it is also dangerous and many people have been injured and even killed.
During the procession, the statue is accompanied by official bearers, called mamámasán, who pull the statue’s ándas along by two ropes. Traditionally, only men could be mamámasán, but recently women have joined the group.
Meeting his mother
Along the processional way, the statue stops at another minor basilica, that of San Sebastian. This basilica is home to a statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel that was a gift from Mexican Carmelite nuns to the same traveling Augustinian missionaries in 1618. Its arrival in Manila is celebrated on May 4. For the Jan. 9 feast, the statue of Mary is brought outside to await the arrival of the Black Nazarene. A pause takes place as the statues “meet.” The union of the two statues is reminiscent of the fourth Station of the Cross, when Jesus meets his mother along the road to Calvary. This meeting of the two statues is known as the Salubong (meeting) in Filipino.
In a May 4, 2018 homily in Manila, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao noted that “Mary always brings us to Jesus. With Mary our recognition, our trust, our confidence in the love and mercy of the Lord are always strengthened.”
After the meeting of the statues, the Black Nazarene continues its journey. As it travels, many sing the popular hymn “Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno” (“Our Father, Jesus the Nazarene”). It was composed by the late Lucio San Pedro, who was named the Philippines’ national artist of music in 1991 by the late president Corazon Aquino. To hear the hymn performed, visit “Catholic Songbook” at youtube.com/watch?v=6_Y32P5KTko.
The Black Nazarene statue is also carried in procession on Good Friday. It is also a focus of devotion each Friday of the year — known as Quiapo Day — in the Philippines.
Sources: catholicsongbook.com; cnnphilippines.com; ucanews.com; Catholic News Agency; catholicnews.com; catholicworldreport.com; cruxnow.com; and vigattinetourism.com