Keeping the faith

January 13, 2014

Manila, Philippines

By Bobby Ranoco

Covering the grand procession of the Jesus of the Black Nazarene is not easy, even though I do it annually. Every year on January 9, millions of devotees crowd the streets as a life-sized, dark, wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ carrying the cross is brought through Manila’s old city.

I began to prepare days before the procession and sought permission to get a vantage point on the rooftop of the Quirino Grandstand at Luneta Park, where the procession begins, and on top of other buildings surrounding the route, to produce photographs from a bird’s eye view. It was my first time photographing from the rooftop of the Quirino Grandstand. I had to do my research on how my photographs would turn out at such an angle.

As I did all this, I was praying hard for guidance from the Jesus of the Black Nazarene that all my requests would be approved. He heeded my prayers: everything was approved and ran smoothly with time to spare.

January 9 arrived and while everyone else was sleeping, I woke up at 3 a.m. because we had to be at the grandstand by 5 a.m. to give us an hour to prepare before the mass. At last, the organizer asked me and the other local photographers to position ourselves on the rooftop.

As I stood on the grandstand, about as high as a five-storey building, I was amazed by what I saw: a sea of devotees attending the early morning mass before the procession. Millions of people come to the event every year to ask for their individual miracles. During the mass, which was officiated by Archbishop Cardinal Luis Tagle, I could feel the solemnity and the serenity of the devotees who were praying fervently to the Black Nazarene.

In the middle of the mass, some unruly devotees tried to position themselves in front of the grandstand. They ran towards the steel fence in front of the anti-riot police line, all just to be the first to touch the Jesus of the Black Nazarene. As the mass was about to end, the statue was carried out and placed on a carriage for the start of the grand procession. Eager devotees scrambled towards the statue. It was like a mosh pit at a rock concert: some devotees swam on top of the crowd to wipe their handkerchiefs on the image. Those far from the statue waved their white cloth while shouting “Viva Jesus Nazareno.” I had goose bumps all over me. I could not believe the enthusiasm of the devotees and the intensity of their faith.

Devotees struggled to hold on to the rope pulling the statue’s carriage. Believers say the rope performs miracles, just like the statue. Millions of devotees followed behind the procession, carrying small replicas of the Black Nazarene. They walked barefoot as a form of devotion and penance, but didn’t seem to mind the hot pavement and litter.

Motorcycles were the only mode of transportation that could pass through the roads clogged by devotees. Some roads were closed to vehicles to prevent accidents. At some points, I walked side by side with devotees just to get to my position where the image would pass by. People fainted from the heat and lack of air while being crammed in with millions of other people. I felt a deep admiration for them as the Jesus of the Black Nazarene passed by: they waved their white handkerchiefs and shouted, “Viva Señor Nazareno! Viva Señor Nazareno!”

It was as if they were connected to the image in their own faithful ways. Some would cry just catching a glimpse of the statue, while others felt fulfilled attending the procession. The whole event lasted for 19 grueling hours, from 7 a.m. on January 9 until it was brought back to its home, Quiapo Church, around 4 a.m. the next day. Local officials estimated 12 million people attended this year’s celebration.

Every prayer, every tear and every wave of white cloth created a feeling of hope in me. I hoped that the Lord would answer these devotees’ prayers, hoped that emotional wounds created by life-threatening calamities would be healed, and hoped for abundant blessings bestowed upon the devout for the coming year.

Even though I cover the procession yearly, this year was special for me. I started out as a photographer planning my every position and every angle of the Black Nazarene, but in the end it felt more than just an accomplishment for me as a photographer; I was a devotee.

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