Millions of Filipino Catholics have started to flock to the Philippine capital on the eve of the Feast of the Black Nazarene on Jan. 9 for an overnight vigil. Devotees clad in yellow and maroon shirts lined up around Luneta Park
in Manila to get the chance to kiss the charred life-size image of Jesus carrying a cross. The annual religious feast that authorities expect to attract about 20 million people commemorates the transfer of the image from the park 400 years ago to the church in the city's Quiapo district. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle
of Manila reminded Catholics to "know Jesus deeply" during the celebration and in various activities related to the feast. With the huge number of people attending the celebration, the cardinal appealed for prayers for a "safe, peaceful, and clean" observance of the religious activity. Organizers of this year's activity have changed the Jan. 9 procession route for “safety reasons.” Church officials have said they expect more people to attend this year than the estimated 18 million devotees in 2017. The Philippine military warned against sparking stampedes during the religious event. "Our worst case scenario is the occurrence of stampede, leading to fractures, casualties and injuries," said local military commander Brig. Gen. Alan Arrojado. Devotees usually shove each other to get near the carriage bearing the image of the Black Nazarene or touch the rope that is used to pull it. Some people who want to get a piece of the rope in the belief that it has miraculous powers even try biting bits off. Connecting to the divine
While critics of the annual event say the Black Nazarene devotion borders on idolatry, Monsignor Clemente Ignacio, former rector of Quiapo Church, said people simply express their "devotion." "Our expressions are expressed 'in the concrete,'" said the priest, adding that it is an Asian trait. He said it is a Filipino trait to want to touch, kiss, or embrace sacred objects.
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"Filipinos believe in the presence of the divine in sacred objects and places," he said. "People want to be connected to the divine, be it through the lining up for the kissing of the image or touching the rope," said Father Ignacio. "This is a way of expressing one’s faith. It is an expression of their devotion," he said. "We all know we don’t worship statues. We worship God and if these statues would bridge us to God, then we want to connect with God using these statues," he added. The image of the Black Nazarene is a life-sized, dark-colored, wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ carrying a cross that was brought to Manila by Augustinian priests in 1607. Tradition holds that it got its color after it was burned in a fire on the Spanish galleon transporting it. Raincoat ready for Nazarene
With the unpredictable weather in Manila in January, organizers of the procession have a raincoat ready for the image of the Black Nazarene. "Rain or shine the procession will push through," said Father Douglas Badong, vicar of Quiapo Church
. "His raincoat is ready. It was specially made for him," said the priest, adding that it is made of transparent material so that devotees can still see the image. Father Badong said that when it rained in the past, the image was just wrapped in plastic. "It was not presentable," he said. Devotees who traditionally want to wipe the image with handkerchiefs and towels during the procession can throw them to people who guard image on top of the carriage. Heightened security
At least 1,000 soldiers and about 500 military reservists have been deployed to support 5,000 police officers assigned to guard the event. Gen. Arrojado said security forces are on heightened alerts although there are no reports of a terrorist threat. "We are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst," he said. In 2012, a terrorist group reportedly planned to stage a bomb attack during the feast, leading authorities to jam communication signals in Manila.