The Black Nazarene

Jesus Christ was not black, so why is the Nazarene black?– a lady friend asked me during a recent zoom session. Neither was he white, quipped another; He was a Jew and they are olive-skinned. Before things got racial, I said there are legends that explain why the Nazarene is black. The wooden statue crossed two oceans, a continent, and the New World before it reached our shores on board a galleon of the Acapulco-Manila trade, which by the way, was the first trans-pacific trade with a cultural impact on four continents. During that interminable voyage, the statue was charred during an accidental fire. Another apocryphal source says that centuries of exposure to incense and candle smoke formed a dark patina on the statue, similar to that of the bulols or granary gods of the Ifugao.

Catholics are not the only ones who venerate black images of their God. In the glory days of the Aztecs (or Mexicas), they built shrines to certain deities along trade routes and protected these with military garrisons. The god Yacathecutli, patron of travel and commercial activities was black and was usually represented with arms outstretched on an X-shaped crossroads in the background. To the Aztecs, he must have looked like the indispensable force directing a traffic of mules and donkeys with precious cargo. Yacathecutli’s cult extended from the Gulf of Mexico to Oaxaca, capital of an eponymous state in the south of Mexico. There were other black deities who had equal billing: Tezcatlipoca, also a patron of trade, and the Mayan god Ek Chuac or black star. The latter was decorated with rope-like designs similar to the twine merchants used to bind their cargo. Guatemala and El Salvador have similar dark-hued deities.

The Spanish missionaries must have been discomfited by these pagan gods that somehow resembled Christ crucified, especially Yacathecutli. Even if his blackness was offensive to the conquerors, the outstretched arms on crossroads that suggested Calvary must have been an effective catechetical device that made Jesus Christ more palatable to the Aztecs. For a time, Tezcatlipoca was installed inside altars of Catholic churches, but the Spanish friars maliciously changed his name to Señor Veneno or Lord of Poison. They tried to bleach the black idols, in order to claim that these had miraculously turned white, but the ruse was exposed when some parts of the wood, impervious to whitening retained blotches of the original black. Perhaps, in their glory days, Yacatecuhtli and Texcatlipoca were paraded along the streets and chinampas of ancient Mexico in a frenzied festival much like the Black Nazarene of Kuyapo.

Until the Covid pandemic changed our lives, every year on January 9 able-bodied Filipinos, the majority of Manileños, converge with fanatical ardor at the Quiapo church and what is now Plaza Miranda. The preparations for the procession start months before; the bishop of Quiapo calls on the Mayor of Manila who convenes several working meetings which include the local government units (barangays), the police, civic and religious organizations, and the city’s health department. As Manila’s population grows, the more difficult it becomes to direct and contain the Nazareno procession. The faithful are angry when Church and State scrimp on the rituals like the kissing of the feet or gerrymander the route. In pre-Covid times, the Nazareno processions lasted more than 24 hours. However, in the last 2 years, the Nazareno has been quarantined like the rest of us.

The Nazareno with its velvet and gold robe and enormous cross must be as burdensome as life itself, judging from the grunts and groans of the devotees as they heave and push the black Christ on its “andas” along the narrow streets of Manila. With biceps swollen from the exertion, shoulders of steel glimmering with sweat, Filipino macho men direct the flow of the thunderous procession back to the Quiapo church.

This is definitely not for the limp-wristed, nor for women though in recent years some have attempted to join. The Nazareno procession is an all-male atavistic, idolatrous ritual, the last bastion of Filipino machismo.