“Want to check out Magellan’s Cross on our way to the mall?” my tita asks.
I’m in Cebu for a few days with my husband and in-laws. We’ve been lounging around the beach house and eating throughout the whole trip. Earlier today I happily peeled crispy skin off of a freshly roasted lechon. I feasted on 6 different fruits at lunch and now we’re heading to the mall to eat. Again. (They say even the water in Cebu has calories.)
The beach house is in the small town of Danao. There are no malls here. Just churches, fruit stands and sari-sari stores. We hop into the SUV and start our 30 minute drive into the hub of the province, Cebu City. Along the way, my tita sings a song that she, and most other Filipinos, learned in church or school:
“When Philippines was discovered by Magellan
They were sailing day and night across the big ocean”
The rest of my family talks about where we’ll eat, but my tita keeps singing:
“When Magellan landed in Cebu City
Rajah Humabon met him, they were very happy
All people were baptized and built the church of Christ
And that’s the beginning of our Catholic life”
We leave the sleepy countryside and enter the capital city, zigging through dodgy areas and zagging around tricycles, street dogs, and pedestrians. It’s 8PM on a Sunday, but with all this buzz, you’d swear it’s rush hour.
We drive by a lit up courtyard. In the middle there’s a small gazebo. It’s also lit up and its archways are covered by iron gates. In the warm, yellow haze, I spot the cross.
As my tita’s song goes, the Portuguese-born Spanish explorer, Ferdinand Magellan discovered what is now called the Philippines, named after King Phillip of Spain. In 1521, he was en route for the Spice Islands, but – as most great discoveries and inventions go – he stumbled on this chain of islands instead.
He found the land and people hospitable and made it his base to explore and Christianize the territory. The king of Cebu and his wife, along with 800 followers were soon baptized. This would mark the first baptism and Catholic mass held in the Philippines.
The people erected a cross to commemorate this momentous occasion. Over the years, faithful followers took pieces of the cross, believing it possessed miraculous powers. Soon enough, it was whittled down to a few splinters. Those remaining splinters were encased in another cross, which is what remains today.
As I approach the gazebo, women in uniform offer prayers in exchange for 50 pesos. Children with strings of sampauita flowers dangling up and over their arms wander from tourist to tourist, looking to make a few pesos themselves.
I walk up to the cross and look up. Tribesmen and Spaniards look back down on me. This scene depicts the day King Humabon and the people of Cebu were baptized.
Also onsite is the Basilica del Santo Niño, the oldest church in the Philippines with a history nothing short of extraordinary.
It begins with a miracle. In the years following Magellan’s arrival, war broke out between the Spaniards and some of the tribesmen. In 1566, one battle left the village in flames and it burned to the ground. When Spanish soldiers inspected the rubble, they found a Santo Niño- or Child Jesus – completely undamaged inside its wooden box.
The people built a church where the untouched Santo Niño was found. Over the centuries, the church burned down three times, and each time the Santo Niño survived.
Millions of pilgrims now flock to the church each year. Tonight, there is a service. Vendors sell candles and Dora the Explorer balloons. A neon cross glows in the night sky.
We approach the church’s front gates. To my right is another large courtyard that is overflowing with people. High up above them a priest delivers a service and his words are amplified by surrounding speakers. As we step into the church we find more people watching the same service on large screen televisions.
We wander through the church hallways. At the very end of the building, people line up to enter a small room. I’m not quite sure what the fuss is all about. And then I see it. The Santo Niño. Oh.
One by one, people step up to the Santo Niño. People pray. People weep. Some reach out and press their palms against the glass.
We step away from the altar. The preacher is still delivering the service but it’s coming to an end. So, we scoot out of the compound to beat the thousands of churchgoers that will soon follow.
As we drive off, I look back and watch the cross, worshipers, children, and vendors disappear into the night. We zig and zag back through traffic, and just like that, my 15 minutes in a 16th century landmark is over.
Our next 21st Century conquest? Dinner.