It begins long before dawn. The man, in a white robe, on the raised platform of a grandstand at the center of a crowd of thousands. Jump, said the man, jump if you believe. Raise your hands, said the man, wave those white handkerchiefs. Higher, the Lord cannot see. Look to the heavens, look to the heavens, do you see God?
The assent comes in waves. Yes, says the crowd, the handkerchief-waving red-shirted crowd. Yes.
Raise your hands, my brothers, raise your hands if you want to triumph over poverty. The voice punches across the night. Do you want success in life? Do you want success in your work? Do you want success in business? Do you want to find work abroad? Do you want to be healed from disease? Do you want freedom from sin? Do you want freedom from vice? Do you want freedom from all that enslaves you? Do you want direction in life?
The man in white storms across the stage. The voice becomes a snarl.
Do you want to be spared from danger? Do you want to be closer to God? Clap your hands, brothers, clap your hands to the God who is living.
Amen, says the man in white.
When the sun rises, the archbishop climbs to the stage. Jesus of Nazareth, he asks, what is your secret? Where is your strength? The priest speaks of sin and power, of a God who sent His Son to save man from himself and the weight of a cross made heavy by evil spirits. It is time to rise, sons of God.
And then hell breaks loose.
The Nazarene is dragged out to the grandstand. The network cameramen jump from their platforms. The stage, where the archbishop had stood with his hands raised in prayer is now a sea of running devotees. The barricades are broken, the sons of God break free. There are hands everywhere, scrabbling for purchase. The brotherhood of men in yellow shirts who belong to the Church of the Black Nazarene struggle to hold the mob back. Stand down, they shout.
I write this a week after I staggered out from the grandstand, a 26-year-old reporter in a torn shirt and broken shoes, muttering prayers to random gods. I had a 10-foot cable lying tangled in the barricades, but there was no way in any universe I was going back.
I had been told to stay off the ground, to haul my camera up to the rooftop and take what I could get. When the barricades broke, I was on a ledge by the stage six feet from the ground, zooming in on a crowd maddened by the prospect of salvation. When I looked down there was a man hauling himself up by my monopod, hands clutching and tugging at my jeans. There was a mob at my back and a mass of shoving humanity at my feet, and for the smallest space of a second I had the miserable certainty God was not going to be very forgiving that day. Because I am young and not the most practical of reporters, I crouched with the ledge at my back to shoot the men who stood arm in arm over me. Blue sky, yellow shirts, arms linked, grim faces.
It took some time before I understood that the shouts I was hearing weren’t from the crowd but from the men in yellow. There’s a woman here, they were shouting. Stand back, there’s a woman here. They had formed a circle around me, shoving away the horde, and I realized that I was that woman, that they were playing white knights to my distressed damsel. I jumped off the ledge, got shoved under a platform, got dragged out by the same men who screamed the platform was collapsing, and then I was hauled on top of another ledge by several skinny men who said the woman was in trouble again.
Of course I jumped off eventually, because even idiot women who insist on shoving their way into the melee know when something’s going to give. It took what felt like hours, although my camera records it as two minutes, for me to get through to the stage and up to another ledge. There was a priest who gave me a hand, and the same man who pulled me from under the platform found me long enough to give me a blessed flower and raise an approving thumb.
This is what I saw. A baby, no more than a year old, clapping from his perch on his father’s shoulders. A man, clinging to a pole, one arm outstretched to wave a white towel. The Nazarene made its slow way through the heaving crowd. A woman’s voice echoes over the loudspeaker. Please, she says, please. Let us show the world we can command ourselves. Let us show the Lord we follow His bidding. The noise swells, the millions surge toward a single cross, young men throw themselves up to the cross to cling to its arms, while the men who stood guarding it pry away fingers and shove at bodies squirming for purchase.
In the Acts of the Apostles the Lord declares, I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young people shall see visions; your old people dream dreams. Even on the slaves, men and women, shall I pour out My Spirit. I will show portents in the sky above and signs on the earth below. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the day of the Lord comes, that great and terrible Day.
And all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.
And so Peter spoke of how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him, that it is he who was ordained of God to be the Judge of the quick and the dead.
On the ninth day of the first month of the year of the Lord 2012, God’s people came to remind Him of His promise. The stories are the same. They are poor, they say, so poor that God is the only way. They are sick and dying, and only God offers miracles. They are sinners, bad fathers and erring husbands, thieves and leaders of syndicates, and God is the only salvation. They want forgiveness and second chances, they want lives better than hand-to-mouth, and if they touch the rope that holds the Black Nazarene, if they bring home the white towel and fulfill their promise to return, God will reward them.
The Black Nazarene returns home to its glass box at dawn. So do God’s people. They may not go abroad or find victory from sin and sickness and death, but they believe they have paid their dues. Perhaps this country will do the same.
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