O Lord Thou shalt open my lips and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.

Devotion to Ecce Homo/Nymphios

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In the Latin Rite, Christ the Bridegroom is known by the name Ecce Homo. The image of Ecce Homo in Ponta Delgada, Portugal is the original inspiration for this blog. In Portuguese, the image is known as "Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres" (literally: "Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles"). Over time, this blog has come to focus on the Byzantine spirituality regarding the image of Christ crowned with thorns, which identifies Him as the Bridegroom of the Church.

The statue of Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres (Ecce Homo) was carved in Italy in the early 16th Century. It is a roughly life-size bust of Christ being presented to the crowds as Pilate says "Ecce Homo!" The lower portion of the statue is a golden throne with cherubs at the top of it. The throne and the bust itself are one single piece. It was originally designed as a tabernacle. The opening still exists and is covered by the reliquary on the chest.

At about the year 1520, some young women went to Rome to seek the Pope's permission to found a convent of Poor Clares in the town of Caloura on the island of St. Michael (Sao Miguel) in the Azorean Islands in Portugal. While Caloura is a tropical paradise now, at the time it was barren. As a gift, Pope Leo X (who was the son of Lorenzo de Medici) gave them the statute/tabernacle. Upon returning from Rome, the ship carrying the statue and the nuns sank and the statue drifted ashore (being wood after all). By Divine Providence, the statue washed ashore on the beach mere yards from the convent, which sits atop a rocky hill overlooking the Atlantic on the south coast of the island of St. Michael. The statue mostly stayed in storage at the convent. The tabernacle opening in the chest was covered by a paper picture.

In about 1541, the Convent of Our Lady of the Conception (Convento da N. S. da Conceicao) (remember that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not declared as such until the 19th century, so at the time it was just the "Conception of the BVM") was closed (the building in Caloura still remains) due to frequent pirate attacks and the nuns together with the statue moved to the newly founded Convent of Our Lady of Hope (Convento da N.S. da Esperanca) in the Azorean capital of Ponta Delgada on the same island. The nuns were now nice and safe in the capital city and away from the barren rural area they were in before. In front of the convent is St. Francis Square and on the opposite side of the square, on the south shore of the island, is the Fort of St. Blaise (Forte de S. Bras). The statue was originally kept in the Chapel of Our Lady of Peace (NS da Paz) in the convent gardens, but later moved to a side chapel in the lower choir of the main chapel. The main chapel is rectangular, a single nave, with the sanctuary on the east end and the choir, behind the monastic bars, at the west end.

The statue was kept here with out any sort of lighting or maintenance until 1681 when a young novice named Sr. Teresa of the Annunciation was made the care-taker of the statue. She found the statue in the dark, with no decorations (cape, crown jewels, etc.), covered in dust, in deteriorating condition, and just simply neglected. Sr. Teresa of the Annunciation heard Christ speaking through the statue, revelations that were confirmed whenever she received Holy Communion, asking her to take care of His statue and spread this devotion. The other nuns found her claims and Christ's requests to be absurd and impossible. They were Poor Clares and the statue wanted to be ornamented in gold and pearls and wear the finest embroidered capes and have a finely ornamented and gilded Altar! She would write to nobles on the island and beyond asking for funds to ornament the statue and build altars. No matter how impossible or outrageous Christ's requests were, Sr. Teresa, who eventually came to be Mother Teresa, always found a way to meet the Divine requests, even if the requests were met in unusual ways or at the last minute. Eventually, she came to trust in the Lord completely. Deus providebit. If the Lord wanted something done, it would get done, no matter how difficult. This is certainly an important lesson for us today.

Two altars were simultaneously built in the lower choir while the statue was moved to the upper choir in 1697 and placed upon the altar of Jesus, Maria, e Jose (Jesus, Mary, & Joseph). Now matter how difficult the projects became, God always provided, even when the two altars had to be rebuilt part-way during construction in 1702. Mother Teresa planted a fig tree in St. Francis Square to provide figs for the construction workers and also planted a rosebush on convent grounds. Both plants survive to this day. As Mother Teresa worked to spread the devotion and collect funds, in came donations: money, silver, gold, pearls, gems, finely brocaded cloth, and more in order to provide for the beautification projects. The poor donated what little money they could and also donated their labor. Many couples donated their wedding rings. Also arriving in large quantities were accounts of cures, salvation from pirates and shipwrecks, all attributed to the statue and usually mentioning Mother Teresa of the Annunciation. Miracles and donations continue to this day. Pilgrims came in such large numbers, that in order to ease the burden on the convent, it was decided to have a large annual feast to take the statue out to the people, carrying him in procession. The feast has been celebrated every year starting in 1700, with the feast that year being held on April 11. The Fifth Sunday after Easter was declared to be Ecce Homo Sunday. Originally, the procession stopped at each monastery in the city, entering the church and going to the tabernacle, emphasizing the link between the Eucharist and the Passion. Today, the procession takes a large lap in the downtown area of Ponta Delgada.

In December of 1713, the island was devastated by a series of earthquakes so a penitential procession was held carrying the statue through the streets, from church to church. By this time, the statue already gained the title "dos Milagres" ("of the miracles"). As the statue left the Jesuit church, it fell from the carrier out the front. As soon as the statue hit the ground, the earthquakes stopped. The statue was quickly put back on the carrier and the procession continued to the Convent of St. Andrew. Upon arriving, the carrier and statue were cleaned up and fixed by the nuns there, who discovered that the statue was completely undamaged except for a scratch on the right arm. Of course devotion spread even greater than before. This is the first of two times the statue left the convent for a reason other than the annual feast.

Mother Teresa of the Annunciation died in 1738, just a few months shy of her 80th birthday. The cause for her beatification periodically becomes a popular talking point. Her remains are in an ossuary in the statue's current chapel. The duty of keeper of the statue passes on from one sister to another, a privilege granted on the deathbed of the keeper. After her death her work continued. In 1771 a third altar was built in a chapel at the back of the lower choir-the far end from the High Altar-where the statue remains today. Many nobles donated money, gold, gems, and fine brocaded capes to the statue. So many couples, rich and poor, donated their wedding rings, that there was a chest made to hold only the redding rings donated. This red chest sits off to the side in the chapel where the statue currently sits. King Joao V of Portugal (reigned 1706-1750) donated his own cape to be converted into a cape for the statue. While almost all capes are red, King Joao V's cape is one of the few white ones. The statue now has dozens of capes and several halos, scepters, crowns, and ropes (to bind his hands). The statue also acquired a relic of the Holy Cross, which is kept in the reliquary on the statue's chest and held in place by the ropes, one of which is made of thousands and thousands of pearls. The presence of the relic mandates a canopy built onto the processional carrier, since it is a relic of the Passion. Replica statues in Portuguese churches throughout the world have canopies as well, to look like the original, even though only the original has a relic. The Poor Clares eventually left the convent and the convent and statue passed to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, who left in 1962 and were replaced by the Sisters of Mary Immaculate. This work has passed from order to order, with an uninterrupted line of keepers of the statue.

At one point in history, it was decided that the statue should be restored. A master painter was aquired and the statue prepared. He was taken down from the altar and stripped for painting. The painter put paint on his brush and lifted his brush to the statue. When the brush came close to the statue, the painter's hand and arm became very tired and weak. He took a rest and tried again. Each time he tried to paint the statue, his arm grew tired and weak in the same way. Each time the brush suddenly became to heavy to lift. It became clear to everyone that the statue didn't want to be painted. To this day the statue has chipped paint on his face due to aging and never being restored.

The feast has continued annually for over 300 years since 1700, never being canceled and delayed only twice. In 1901, the Azores saw the first and only visit of Portuguese royalty. King Carlos and Queen Amelia visited Sao Miguel in July and the feast was postponed until then. The king and queen marched in the procession behind the statue in front of the other pilgrims that take part annually. The route was shortened in order to not tire the royals and modified to pass by the palace where the queen was staying. In 1951, Portuguese President Marechal Carmona died in April and the feast was delayed two weeks, to the dismay of many Azoreans, who felt that the Church should not honor a key member of the dictatorship that ruled Portugal at the time. In 1956, the convent and the surrounding area was declared to be a shrine. In 1991, Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Santo Cristo the week after the feast, so the statue came out twice that year. It was the second time the statue left the convent for a reason other than the feast (after the 1713 earthquakes) and the only time the statue left without a formal procession.

The autobiography of Mother Teresa, officially "Vida da Veneravel Madre Teresa da Annunciada, escrita e dedicada ao Senhor Santo Cristo com a invocacao do Ecce Homo" (Life of the Venerable Mother Teresa of the Annunciation, written and dedicated to Senhor Santo Cristo with the invocation of Ecce Homo), but commonly known as "O Livro do Senhor Santo Cristo" (Book of Senhor Santo Cristo) has become quite popular among devotees over the centuries. There are many sacramentals associated with the devotion. In addition to holy cards, medals, and portraits, there is also "medidas" (measures), which are ribbons as long as the statue is high and tile images of the statue in the traditional Portuguese style: white tile with blue paint. Pieces of Mother Teresa's rosebush and fig tree are popular relics. Then there are the famous "registos" (registers): wooden frames with intricate paper flowers surrounding a paper sculpture of the statue on it's modern altar with Mother Teresa kneeling in astonishment that a statue is talking to her. Now this altar was build after she died, but ornamenting the King of Kings is important to the devotion: everything revolves around Him and everything is done for His glory, so the statue is depicted in it's current state. Sacramentals are available for a donation at the convent at a room near the main gate known as the wheel room. There is a wooden revolving door in the wall where the faithful and the nuns can exchange money and sacramentals without seeing each other (because it is a cloister).

Nowadays, pilgrims can come to visit the statue almost any day of the year. The only days the convent is closed is during the Novena of the Thorns, which begins on Ember Wednesday in Lent, on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of Major Week, the fourth week after Easter, which is the week before the feast. Today the feast is a week-long affair. It starts the Friday before Ascension Thursday with the illumination. Over 100,000 light bulbs are used to illuminate the feast grounds, most of those are in intricate designs: lamps, scepters, chalices, a halo, and a giant replica of the reliquary hung on the tower of the convent.

On Saturday, the statue must go from it's chapel in the choir to the main chapel. However, the cloister bars are in the way, so the statue must go outside. Portuguese people are not going to pass up an opportunity for a procession, so there is the "Procissao da Mudanca da Imagem" (Transfer Procession of the Statue). In the morning, the statue is taken from the chapel in the choir and stripped of whatever cape and crown jewels the statue happened to be wearing (Keep in mind the statue has numerous halos, crowns, scepters, and ropes donated over the centuries and dozens of capes. Which ones are on the statue are rotated through the year.) The cape donated by King Joao V is put on and the statue is taken to the convent's main gate, to the wheel room. The statue's wooden carrier is waiting and the cape of Joao V is taken off and replaced with the cape chosen for that year's feast. The best crown jewels from the Lord's Treasury are put on by their caretakers. The statue is put on the carrier and the canopy put on and the whole thing covered in fresh flowers, which are certainly not in short supply due to donations from pilgrims for the feast. This process is very exclusive. The only people that can be present are the statue's keeper, some nuns from the convent, the shrine rector, and some representatives of the Brotherhood of Santo Cristo, which organizes the feast. In the afternoon, a Te Deum is sung at the gate and the Bishop of Angra (whose diocese includes all the Azores) together with the full Brotherhood, knock on the door. The nuns open up the door and entrust the statue to the Brotherhood for the next two days. The bishop incenses the statue and leads some prayers. When the statue comes out, he is saluted by the armed forces at the Fort of St. Blase across the square with rockets fired in the air. The procession is in many ways a smaller version of the procession on Sunday. The streets around the square are decorated with a simple flower carpet. The procession then does a lap of the square and enters the main chapel. It is a simple liturgical procession, similar to the one at the beginning of Mass, but the statue is followed by a marching band and thousands and thousands of pilgrims. The pilgrims carry "promessas" (promises): candles weighing the same as a friend or relative they prayed for, promising to carry their weight in wax if the prayer is answered. Around the square it is forbidden for bands to play anything other than the statue's hymn. Upon passing the fort, the statue stops and faces the fort. The statue then gets a 21 gun salute from ships in the harbor, a fly-over, and the fort's band plays the hymn. The fort's coat of arms is on the ground in flowers. Near the fort is a hospital which is now a nursing home. The statue stops briefly and faces the sick in the windows.

Later that night is a fireworks show and a candle-light procession from the convent chapel to the Church of St. Joseph, which is next door to the hospital. An all night vigil takes place at the church. In the morning, the statue goes to the front of the convent chapel for an outdoor Mass. Originally, the vigil and Feast Mass was in the convent chapel and the statue only came back out for the Sunday Procession, but in the 1970's the Mass was moved outside to the square due to the number of faithful and in the 2000's the vigil was moved to the larger Church of St. Joseph for the same reason. By the time the Mass takes place, the streets are decorated with flower carpets that contain every kind of flower with green branches and colored wood shavings that are intricate works of art in themselves. Each year a different bishop is invited to celebrate. After Mass, the statue is placed back in the convent chapel.
The main procession is in the afternoon. By now the entire route is decorated with beautiful flower carpets. It takes hours to watch the entire procession. The first half is church organizations, including the Brotherhood of Santo Cristo. The statue is in the very center preceded by banners with the last words of Christ, then dozens of girls dressed as angels carrying replicas of many relics of the passion: dice, nails, a hammer, a small ladder, capes, a crown of thorns, the list goes on and on. Next follows clergy and the statue. The statue is so large that 8 men are needed to carry it at a time and there are 8 total teams, for 64 men total, switching often to avoid fatigue. The statue and it's carrier weighs about 280 kgs (about 617 lbs.). When the statue leaves the convent chapel, it is saluted with rockets, but a much greater number than on Saturday. When the statue passes the hospital turned nursing home, it once again faces the sick. Upon passing the Fort of St. Blase, the military once again salutes the Lord. Marching bands follow the statue and more are scattered throughout the procession. Now, nobody is allowed to touch the flower carpets until the statue has passed over them, so the first half of the procession is divided, one section on either side of the carpet in the middle of the street, including the bands. After the bands that follow the statue, is the promessas, the pilgrims with promises. It takes an hour to watch these pilgrims walk by. The second half of the procession is civil organizations. Government leaders, boy and girl scouts, and university students wearing their black capes all have their place. The Fire Department of Ponta Delgada has the honor of closing the procession. Their drum band is a favorite of young and old alike. Upon arriving back at the convent, the statue stays in front of the convent as the entire second half of the procession passes in review of the King of Kings. The bands play His hymn. The pilgrims file past. The pilgrims continue to file past. More pilgrims file past. Government leaders pass in front of their Leader. The boy and girl scouts pass. The university students pass and wait off to the side. The fire fighter's drum band signals the end of the procession. Now it is time to give the statue back to the nuns. The statue is carried the short distance to the convent gate with the students laying their capes on the street for the statue to pass over them. This laying of capes, as well as the flower carpets, being reminiscent of the palms and cloaks at Christ's Entrance into Jerusalem. Now the statue is in the convent for another year.

Monday is a regional holiday, Azores Day. The feast continues daily until Thursday, which is the Feast of the Ascension and the last day of the feast. Each day in the square there is food, games, and bands playing. One of the most poplar foods are the pacifiers made entirely of sugar. All this is certainly a far cry from the neglected statue in storage.