Portobello’s Black Christ (Cristo Negro de Portobello or Jesus el Nazareno) seen outside its usual secure case inside Iglesia de San Felipe (St. Phillip’s Catholic church), is one magnificent statue. And when the shouts of Viva Cristo Negro rang out in the chapel, I couldn’t help but agree that I was experiencing something truly awesome. Wednesday October 21, was the grand culminating ceremony of Cristo Negro de Portobello.
After 3 years of never being able to attend the celebrations surrounding the Black Christ of Portobello, opportunity came banging on my door this year. I opened the door and next thing I know I landed in Portobello. As was anticipated, we had to park outside the town and walk about 1 mile to get into the jam-packed town. We walked not to be ‘pilgrims’ too but because there was no parking left in the town.
There were thousands of people either making their way to the church, buying prayer beads, incense, and all kinds of last minute religious paraphernalia for the ceremony.
Along the way, we passed devotees hoping to get to the chapel before el Nazareno is taken outside. The man above is one of many still making their way on their knees to the chapel. The woman below is taking a rest, outside the chapel and prepares to make her way in.
These devotees or pilgrims, are generally accompanied by a friend, family member or some other devotee who give them water, encourages them along the way, or oblige them by pouring melted candle-wax on their backs. The pain is their reminder of what Christ went through for them and they want to share in this pain as well.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, based on the scanty information I’ve generally received from those who’ve been to the event at some point in the past. I was reminded again why nothing beats firsthand experience. The main thing that I don’t recall hearing before is that an actual Mass, without the Eucharist, is held prior to the Black Christ being taken from the church on a procession through the town of Portobello and returned to the chapel.
The Mass began at around 6:30pm and ended around 7:40. All the pews were removed from the chapel to create space. Cristo Negro stood on a raised platform in the center of the chapel. The crowd was unbelievable as we stood almost pressed to each other. It was a real ‘charismatic’ celebration. Listening to thousands of Catholics respond to the liturgy with spontaneous petitions being shouted to Jesus Nazareno was quite touching.
Occasionally, we heard cries of “permiso” (excuse me) and the crowd would part to let the devotee(s) adults and children crawl in to reach Cristo Negro with their petitions, gratitude or to be blessed before he was taken from the building.
As the mass wound up, someone started pounding a bombo. The vibrations from the bombo was bouncing off the walls, hitting my chest and the hum at the back of the sanctuary grew louder. Devotees with all kinds of icons, miniature replicas of the Black Christ and other items symbolic of their sacrifices, desires and gifts began an almost hypnotic swaying from left to right, forward and backward with intermittent loud outbursts of “Viva Cristo Negro!” and “Vive!” I soon found out that the ‘disturbance’ at the back of the chapel had something to do with the time.
It was getting closer to 8pm. Cristo Negro starts his processional march from the San Felipe and through the streets of Portobello at exactly at 8:00pm. Not before. Regular attendees knew what to expect and so the dancing began as though to hasten the time.
When the bells tolled announcing that 8pm arrived there was a deafening roar of ‘ariba’ from the crowd, calling for El Nazareno to be lifted up for the procession. The sound was electrifying.
And the synchronized hoisting of the platform with the statue – impressive!! A few hushed “wows’ was all I could manage when the procession began. Seriously, I wanted to clap my hands and jump up and down in glee at the sight. It was a real goosebumpy kinda thing…
El Nazareno resting on the able shoulders of between 80-100 men (not a single woman in sight helping…hmmmm ok back to the story) kicking a hypnotic rhythmic swaying out the doors of the church and through the streets of the town. Seriously, this was an amazing sight to behold. All the carriers are dressed in red t-shirt. The are tightly huddled together up to 40 on each side (my best count!). They sway in a stepping motion like 3 steps forward, then 4 steps backward, occasionally turning to the sides as they go. I still need the correct answer on these steps.
The devotees mimic this same motion as they process with their symbols on their heads. And the pilgrims crawling through the streets also have a specific style of crawling, evident in how they move their legs, turning from side to side, and sometimes crawling backwards. Amazing!!
This crowd is not for the fainthearted. The statue was cordoned off and escorted by personnel from the police who struggled to maintain order on the march and keep the statue away from the massive gathering that lined the very narrow streets of the route of El Nazareno.
Think typical Spanish era, narrow cobbled streets with thousands of people bursting through every crevice and corner, taking over people’s front yards in some instances.
The procession which begins at 8pm from the church will end at midnight. Although the route is a short one, with the crowd, the swaying steps and crawling pilgrims there were frequent stops for rest. As if on cue, to signal the end of each break and resumption of the procession there was a short breathtaking fireworks display. I want to believe they purposely selected the loudest cannon like explosives for this event!
Finally at 11pm Cristo Negro arrives back at the church. It was way too early for his return inside. He had to go in at midnight, not before. So they process along another side street by the chapel to let Jesus Nazareno remain longer with the people.
At 11:30 the procession returns to the front of the sanctuary for one last rest before the entrance. Then after another thrilling fireworks display, the carriers rise with a flourish, turn El Nazareno to face the street. He was going to be taken into the chapel, backwards. Of course I asked why, but didn’t get a satisfactory answer. I wondered if maybe it was symbolic that he never turns his back on his people? Or something more mysterious and interesting.
With tears, and roars of “Viva Cristo Negro” the crowd blows kisses, lifted their symbols and waves goodbye. There is only breathing space in the chapel. One set of pilgrims have gone inside and the others with the crosses remain outside.
The dancing carriers are re-energized and put on one last elaborate swaying and stepping as the Black Christ returns to the chapel and soon to his secure case until October 2010.
And we set off for a brisk 1 mile walk back to the car to head home at 12:30am. What a vigil that was. It was too much to take in all at once, so many questions, so much to reflect on. But I’ve seen firsthand the deep devotion of Catholics in Panama to the Black Christ of Portobello. And I have much food for thought…