Tuesday, November 09, 2004

chapter 2, part 3

As a young sacristan, Fortunato had been filled with love for the Señor Nazareno, in whose black image he found a more fitting representation of his redeemer than the countless white-skinned statues of the Christ. Nor was he alone in seeing the Black Nazarene as his personal savior. Every Friday, the mass of humanity in the area would swell even more as thousands of devotees visited Quiapo Church to pray to the 400-year-old statue and light candles in honor of the Señor.

Thousands of Filipinos and even some foreigners venerated the Black Nazarene as a healer and miracle worker who grants the wishes of supplicants, cures the most grievous wounds and diseases, and counteracts the deadliest poisons.

When the feast of the Black Nazarene is celebrated on the ninth day of the first month, devotees who walk barefoot carry the life-sized statue, making their way through the different streets of the district, shouting "Viva Señor" as the faithful scramble and stumble all over each other for a chance to touch the redeemer and be blessed. This has been the tradition, though at times the miraculous statue is also placed on a gilded carriage and pulled throughout the streets of Quiapo.

It is both fiesta and panata, celebration and supplication, the Black Nazarene in his robe of maroon cloth carrying his wooden cross for centuries and stoking the flames of devotion among his followers to a fever pitch. They come in droves, the jeepney drivers, construction workers, cabbies, beggars, sweepstakes vendors, sampaguita sellers, fortunetellers, taho vendors, pawnshop owners, dressmakers, fishmongers, butchers, policemen, thieves, war veterans, the blind, the deaf, the mute and all the disabled. It is the festival of the masses, and the great unwashed of Manila stake their claim to the savior who chose to live among the poor, instead of having his feet bathed in expensive perfume. Then again, the young Fortunato had thought to himself, shivering at what he believed must be blasphemous notions, the emporium that was Quiapo had not always been the domain of the poor and the outcast, and it was the mighty of the land that had brought the Black Nazarene to these shores. Yet the Black Nazarene had stayed, despite the change in fortune of his adopted home. He had remained faithful to his flock.

It was one moonless night so many years ago when he and Father Ariel had stood in front of the Señor Nazareno, and he had asked the kindly old priest to tell him the story of the Black Nazarene.

"But what is it that you wish to know, my son?"

"I’ve been wondering why this statue of our savior is black, unlike the others, Father. And I’ve been wondering how he came to live in this church."

"Ah, to talk of that we must go all the way back several centuries, back to the land of Mexico, when the great galleons of old sailed between Manila and Acapulco. Do you know where Mexico is, Fortunato?"

"Yes Father, it is in the New World, near America."

"Indeed. And in this great Spanish colony of Mexico, which is home to a race of brown-skinned men not unlike ourselves, there lived a devout priest who was a faithful follower of our Lord Jesus Christ."

"He was a good priest, Father?"

"Yes, my child, he was."

"What was his name?"

"It was… Father Raymundo. Yes. Raymundo, it was."

"Was he a young priest, or an old priest like you, Father?"

"Aba, you rascal! What difference does it make? And I am not so old, you impudent child!"

"I am sorry, Father."

Father Ariel bristled and glared at Fortunato, who tried to appear as meek as possible, though he barely was able to suppress the laughter building up inside him. The old priest was fond of the young sacristan, and though Fortunato teased him, the boy was full of respect for Father Ariel.

"Please Father, the story of the Black Nazarene…"

"Sige, but one more interruption and you will no longer hear the tale. Now, where was… ah, yes, now this Father Raymundo was so devoted that each day, he would go in front of the life-sized statue of the Christ in his church, and every morning he would kiss the feet of our crucified Lord.

"Everyone in that little Mexican village loved Father Raymundo, for he was a good man and was wise and patient in listening to all the problems of the people in the pueblo. In fact, many of the villagers considered him a living saint, though he himself would only humbly say that he was doing everything for the Señor, and that he only wished he could do more for his fellowmen.

"Now Father Raymundo had a sister of exceeding beauty, whose looks were matched by a heart that was as generous and as pure as that of her brother, the man of God. Cecilia was her name, and it was on the lips of every man in the village, young and old, married and unmarried, who fell in love with her the first time she and Father Raymundo had arrived in the pueblo, and who every day dreamt of being loved by her in return, though the married ones, well, they wisely kept this wish buried in their hearts, away from the eyes and ears of their wives.

"Now it so happened that one of those that fell in love with the fair Cecilia was a man of ill repute, a scoundrel whom everyone in the pueblo hated but who happened to be the one of the richest señors in the village. So smitten was he by the fair Cecilia that everyday he would send gifts to her home, each present more lavish than the previous one. Cecilia would always give back the gifts with a letter saying how she was grateful for the gesture, but that she could not accept the charming show of generosity, being that she could not love the giver in return.

"Finally, desperate as this lovesick man was feeling, he decided to talk to Father Raymundo and ask for his permission to marry his sister. ‘I am sorry,’ Father Raymundo politely told him, ‘but my sister does not love you, and I cannot force her to marry someone she does not love.’

"’But you are our parish priest, you are her elder brother, and you are a man. Please, Father, she will listen to you. You have but to tell her, and she will marry me and this torment will cease,’ the scoundrel said.

"But Father Raymundo was firm in his refusal, and while he did not say so to the supplicant, he knew that this man was a scoundrel and that one like him should never be married to his sister. Cursing, the rich man finally left the church, and as his mind twisted and turned like a serpent and considered different black schemes, he decided that he would dab a deadly poison on the feet of the crucified Christ, which everyone in the village knew Father Raymundo kissed at the start of each day. And so this villain of a man placed the poison, and waited for news of the parish priest’s death.

"The next day, Father Raymundo walked up to the statue of our blessed Señor, and once more, as he did every morning, touched the feet of the Savior in humble devotion. And with that innocent kiss, the kindly priest would surely have died, for the poison was of the deadliest kind. But as he kissed the feet of the Nazarene, the Lord in his mercy did not allow his faithful servant to die, and instead the deadly venom was absorbed by the statue, which turned black as the poison seeped through its entire body, rendered harmless by the grace of God.

"And so, my child, was the Black Nazarene born that day, saving Father Raymundo from the vile schemes of that village scoundrel. And thus was the statue given the power, by the grace of God and his only begotten Son, to heal all wounds and remove every poison, if only we shall be as devout as the faithful Father Raymundo. That is the tale of our Señor Nazareno, who in his infinite mercy has listened to our prayers and granted our wishes for centuries, since he made his long voyage to this strange land."

Fortunato’s eyes were filled with tears even as he smiled, and he whispered to Father Ariel, "And this is the same Señor Nazareno, Father?"

"The very same, my child."

"And was it Father Raymundo who brought the statue to our shores?"

Father Ariel sighed. "That I do not know. For I have heard tales that said the Señor had found its way to different villages. Some say that Father Raymundo, when he was nearing the end of his days, had gone back to the village where he was born, and after he had left, the statue had mysteriously disappeared.

"Others say that a band of thieves had stolen the statue, but that quarreled among themselves and most died in the altercation. A wandering monk then found the abandoned bundle containing the Señor Nazareno, and brought it with him to the next pueblo.

"Still others say that a Franciscan priest from Manila found the statue in one of the bazaars in a large city in Mexico, and bought it from the vendor, promising in writing that the seller would immediately go to heaven when he died. However it happened, the sacred Señor has found his way here, and he has been faithful to us his children, and he is the greatest gift that Mexico has given to our land, its sister in Christ, this land which the Spanish had consecrated in the name of Felipe."

"And do you kiss his feet, Father?"

The old priest laughed, a booming sound in the silence of the church.

"Yes, Fortunato," he said. "I kiss the feet of the Señor everyday. And I pray that you too will remain faithful to him."