Updated 11:38 AM PHT Tue, January 10, 2017
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — It is a joyous occasion for the travel of a suffering God, a ritual that has been going on for 220 years.
During Lent, one of the only other times the Black Nazarene is brought out, prayers are more solemn.
But every January 9, the devotion is raucous. Perhaps because it commemorates not the death of Christ, but the transfer of the image from Intramuros to Quiapo.
From the walled city, the procession is said to be symbolic of making the faith through the Black Nazarene, more accessible to the masses.
From Metro Manila and across the country, they arrive at the Quirino Grandstand before dawn, on bare feet.
There is a roar when the gates are opened. They come through in a huge wave, rippling through the grounds of the grandstand. They wave their white towels in the air chanting, "Viva! Viva!"
They greet the Black Nazarene as he is mounted on the carriage by the Hijos de Nazareno, a brotherhood of devotees.
Initiation into this brotherhood is not too systematized, says Mark Joseph Calano, PhD, an assistant professor at the Ateneo de Manila University Department of Philosophy.
"To become an Hijo, you only have to be acquainted with their coda. Pero may mga observation na ginagamit siya as (an) initiation stage into maturity," Calano says.
"Hindi ka tunay na devotee kung hindi ka naisalang. Kasi hindi mo pa panahon," he adds, referring to that moment of touching the original statue. "Hindi ka pa nagsugal ng puso at katawan."
[Translation: But there are observations that it is used as an initiation stage into maturity... You are not a true devotee if you have not yet been immersed. It is not your time yet... You have not yet gambled your heart and body.]
The brotherhood has various chapters, and many more groups of devotees carry their own banners to be recognized among the crowd as they pave the way for their King on the crowded two-kilometer route.
Day breaks over Quirino Grandstand just as the Nazarene makes its exit. On the road outside, devotees wait in anticipation for the image to pass. Among them are fathers and sons, an indication of how the devotion will be inherited.
"Hindi lang kasi individual yung namamanata [It is not only the individual that performs the panata]," Calano explains further. "If the head of the family performs a panata, it carries [over] to the whole family. Kaya lahat sila pumupunta [That is why all of them go]."
We cut across Rizal Park, bypassing the procession and making it to Manila City Hall, where more devotees have laid out mats. They are either waiting for the image to pass, or waiting to join it. Some passed the time catching shade and napping under their carriages.
Replicas of the Black Nazarene line this part of Taft Avenue. Calano explained that these are the "attempt to bring home the image."
"They... think that the power of the original is transferred into the replica," said Calano, adding that devotees become responsible for the replica by cleaning it and clothing it.
"May pagkamaterialistic yung religiosity, pero valid siya [There is a materialistic aspect to the religiosity, but it is valid]."
For almost all of the replicas, boys probably as young as seven years old stand on the platform with the Nazarene --taking and wiping towels tossed by their neighbors and passers-by. They catch the towels with precision, wipe their image with the towels, and toss them back. They imitate the Hijos de Nazareno, as if practicing for their own turn.
Standing out among the rows of boys on carriages is a lone female, 23-year-old Joan Balbin from Sta. Cruz, Manila. She first began the devotion as a member of the Sangguniang Kabataan five years ago.
Balbin does not just dust the cross with the towels, but treats both the cloth and the Nazareno with care; she does not rush to toss it back, but stretches the cloth across Christ's arms, as she were there during the walk to Calvary with the women of Jerusalem.
"Kasi pag nag-start ka maging deboto ng Nazareno, nandu'n na yung passion mo na kahit 'yung pagod, kahit 'yung tiis sa init tsaka sa lamig, okay lang kasi naniniwala ka and nandu'n 'yung belief mo na mangyayari talaga lahat ng prayers," said Balbin, all while taking towels, wiping them gingerly on the cross, and tossing them back.
Further down the road is a carriage of children clambering over its handles, swinging their legs. They are guarded by a watchful Manang Mayet, as they excitedly shout their names and talk over each other about the day's fiesta.
When they get too rowdy, they are shooed away by Sammy Bautista, kagawad of Maria Cristina, Sampaloc, Manila. He is proud of his carriage--a replica which they acquired in 2004, all the way from Bulacan.
Bautista has been doing this since he was 15, and he is now turning 50 in October. He was worried, some time back, that the number of devotees in their community would dwindle-but, "sa awa ng Diyos, hindi naman nawawala."
As he says this, the children chase each other around him. He says that in the devotion is handed down from "generation to generation," but there are some wild grass-"nagbibinata"-who tend to go astray. Nonetheless, they are invited every year to these events. January 9 is like Christmas to them, he says.
The community takes these occasions seriously: whenever the carriage is brought out, it is a cause of pride.
Next week, somebody from the National Housing Authority in Quezon City will borrow their replica; they will push it all the way from Manila to Quezon City.
"Nagpapasalamat ako sa Kanya. Yung isa kong anak nakapunta ng Dubai... dahil sa Kanya," Bautista said. He gestured, as if toward a person who were just there, but it is toward the replica. But any devotee knows that it is not the replica he gestures to, but Christ. As if Christ were just sitting there, on top of the carriage, surrounded by the children of Maria Cristina.
Across their carriage, some devotees have laid out mats on the islands. Among the crowd of onlookers was seven-year-old Princess Sienes, hoisted on her father's shoulders, a tiny Nazareno on each hand. When the "andas" passed by, she raised them in the air as she cheered and the crowd around her chanted, "Viva! Viva!"
When I asked her father for an interview, he tumbled backward, and I took it as a no. But Princess jumped up and down, asking to be interviewed. She came from Malibay in Pasay City, and it was her first time seeing the Nazareno. It made her happy, she said.
We followed the carroza as it made its way toward Bonifacio Shrine. A woman had fainted, but the crowd had gotten so dense it was difficult to make space for her. So they hoisted her above everyone's heads, and she was passed on the next person through their shoulders.
This was the second collapse we had witnessed; the first was with a man, and the immediate reaction of those surrounding him was to toss cold water on his head. He floated in and out of consciousness as a couple of paramedics ran to his aid.
Just behind at the tail of the procession is a smaller replica where a boy no older than eight facilitated the blessing of towels.
Behind him, next to the woman pushing his cart, was Jella Moreno, 25, from Sampaloc, Manila. This is her third year here; she has returned twice since her friends first brought her.
The first time, she managed to hold the rope. Not anymore the next two times, because she has two kids who now tag along with her. They too are excited for this event.
"Ayaw nilang umalis diyan sa ano-" she points at the head of the carriage. "Kailangan mag-vi-viva viva din sila. Sila rin mismo nakakaramdam ng experience."
It's difficult, she says, but worth it.
"'Yung paghihirap mo na kasama mo Siya, tapos ang dami-daming tao, diba?" she said with a faint smile. "Pero pag nakita mo na, tapos lahat ng tao nagwe-wave, nagvi-viva, parang nagkakaisa lahat."
We turn upstream, in the direction of the procession, and get squashed by the crowd. People shout "Agos!" to direct others to go with the flow. The people in the mosh pit were polite; they too could not control the wave, and they gave me instructions to hold on or to follow someone's lead. Some made sure not to push too closely to me, along with other women stuck in the crowd, lest we take it the wrong way.
It was useless to fight against the crowd; it was also the closest we had been to the carriage.
When the river of people finally spit us out on the curb turning toward Bonifacio Shrine, the procession sailed ahead.
I gathered all these thoughts as we decided it was time to retire for the day. But many would follow the procession all the way to Quiapo. Others would follow every year, for as long as they could. And some would, in their own time, move from their smaller floats to the larger statue.