The Black Nazarene – how a black Jesus effigy from Mexico became a symbol of hope and healing
The Black Nazarene is the single most highly revered religious icon in the whole of the Philippines - and for such a fervently Catholic nation, that's really saying something.
This life sized carving depicts a dark skinned Jesus kneeling, laden down with a heavy cross - and to touch it is to be healed. The miraculous powers of the Black Nazarene cannot be understated. Staunch believers, known as devotees, flock to see it, touch it and have their hardships and illnesses, misfortunes and bad luck washed away by its healing powers. As with many religious relics imbued with this kind of passionate belief, the Black Nazarene's own history is the stuff of legend - its struggles to survive have resonated with and inspired millions of Filipinos.
The Black Nazarene started life in Mexico, carved by an unknown wood carver in the early 17th century (Mexico has a long standing trade relationship with the Philippines and the exchange of goods between the two countries has continued for centuries). For a long time the Nazarene's distinctive dark colour was thought to be caused by a terrible fire that almost destroyed the Mexican galleon which carried it. This somewhat dubious survival story became the first of many surrounding the Nazarene.
It is actually carved from mesquite wood, a dark wood popular with Mexican wood carvers at that time. This is the fact behind the myth ( but since when has that really mattered when it comes to age old stories associated with Godly icons).
After arriving in Manila the carving was first enshrined in the Church of San Juan Bautista which was promptly destroyed during the British occupation. The Nazarene miraculously survived yet again, before it was moved to a church within Intramuros, a walled section of the city built by the Spanish which still stands today. Its new home was then also destroyed by fire.
You could say churches were not the safest place for the Nazarene.
Today the Black Nazarene is safely housed in a church located just north of Intramuros, the Quiapo Church.
But since it was moved to Quiapo Church the Black Nazarene has continued to prosper where everything around it hasn't. It has survived countless fires, stood tall through earthquakes, typhoons and the bombs of the Second World War. It has survived where all else has not, or that is the belief.
The truth is parts of the statue have indeed been lost over the years and replaced, but this has done nothing to dampen the healing powers of this icon of Filipino faith and history. The resilience of the icon resonates with many Filipinos and the devotion it still inspires is demonstrated in epic form during the annual Traslacion or Feast of the Black Nazarene, a chaotic, dangerous and joyful procession of millions that takes over the streets of Manila every January 9th.
A replica Black Nazarene (it's too dangerous to take the fragile original) is carted through the chaotic streets during a symbolic journey from its original home in Intramuros back to Quiapo Church, a commemoration of its final journey. An estimated 15 million plus devotees clamber and climb their way behind the statue as it goes, desperate to touch the effigy and have their lives transformed for the better.
Crowds writhe and struggle for hours, people get crushed and faint and sometimes die. The police patrol in their thousands and the army are even drafted in turning up in open sided jeeps like a war is about to kick off. It is utterly bonkers and easily the biggest religious event in the country.
But the Black Nazarene is worth it. Devotees tell of illnesses that have miraculously disappeared after touching it, how bad fortune was transformed into good, healthy babies born and businesses prospering where others fail. Huge amounts of people from young families to the elderly and frail camp out on the streets for a chance to see and touch the icon. There was an atmosphere of hope and devotion in the air like I've not experienced before.
Whatever you believe about the Black Nazarene and its power to heal, what it does do is bring Filipinos together like no other diminutively sized wooden carving could do. I'm not religious but there was a little part of me that wanted to believe the hype. It's an easy fix to many complex problems. I never got anywhere near it itself, but if I had, if I'd managed to brush my fingers against that ancient dark wood so heavily imbued with love and miracle, who knows what my future might hold.