JANUARY brings to mind the sea.
From my home in Barangay Bankal in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu, I follow on television the roiling waves of men heave and pull the statue of the Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno de Quiapo in its yearly sojourn from and to its berth at the Minor Basilica.
I have never seen up close the life-sized statue that, according to Wikipedia, was carved by a nameless Aztec carpenter and transported by galleon from Mexico.
But lapping up the testimonials and footages of the procession, specially the rising injury and body count of the Jan. 9 fiesta, creates a sensation no different from being tossed at sea.
Here is an excerpt of the late National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s description of the Black Nazarene procession:
“To Quiapo's fiesta procession speed wave on wave and horde upon horde all of Manila's maledom: ‘kanto’ boy and ‘maton,’ jeep driver and stevedore, the ‘siga’ and the ‘sikat’... And all, from 13 years and up, have come to prove themselves macho in the roughest, rowdiest, ruggedest procession in the city's year. And what a spectacle it is: that rumbling sea of heads in the midst of which, now sinking and now rising, now tottering and now falling, now rushing and now lagging, suddenly appears uplifted over the tumult, dark and dazzling, terrible and triumphant: the Lord of Downtown.”
Though I have never been to Quiapo, I can imagine that surge of humanity, as well as the almost mystical amalgam of horror and wonder roiling inside those swirling in its midst.
In early 2000, I was a speck in the noontime crowd milling outside the Basilica Minore. Mixed with the devotees were the curious, like me, who found themselves drawn to the Saturday procession closing the January novenario. I had never attended any novena mass before this, despite years of Catholic education.
I wore stout walking shoes but brought an umbrella I could not open in the tight press of bodies. I also had no candle, no box of matches, and no replica of the Holy Child. But my real initiation took place when the red-and-gold image emerged from the church gates and the crowd surged forward.
Forced to tighten ranks when it turned from Jones Avenue to the smaller Jakosalem Street, the procession baptized me with my first “sea-legs.”
As the crowd pushed, I found out I could not walk. Unable to hold on to anyone, I could only grip my furled, useless umbrella to my chest. With my arms pinned thus, I was propelled forward by the surge of bodies.
I made an inarticulate sound when I lost my footing. But instead of falling down, I was carried by this wave, which deposited me later, without harm, on a spot that appeared after the crowd turned the corner.
For one used to making decisions, even one as elemental as putting one foot forward, the moment left me in almost superstitious awe. Since then, I’ve talked to others who went through the same experience of “floating” at some point during the procession.
One moment is emptiness, a total absence of will. In the next, life rushes back into the vacuum, as do gratitude and wonder.
The absence of tragedies in Cebu’s Sto. Niño fiesta is just one of the contrasts cited when a comparison is made with the Black Nazarene feast.
While one celebrates Jesus as child, the other worships the suffering Christ, flogged, crowned with thorns and carrying the cross of humanity. One feast tests men to suffer and endure; the other draws children, families, even the elderly.
Outwardly different, both celebrations must come from the nothingness we face before unsolved mysteries, whether of nature or of belief.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 11, 2009 issue