Monday, June 15, 2009

A Visit with Christ the King

On Sunday we decided to take a day trip to the mountains of neighboring Guanajuato state. Our goal was to reach El Cubilete del Cristo Rey – the "tumbling" hill of Christ the King, where there is a towering statue of Jesus on top of a mountain that is said to be in the exact geographic center of Mexico. Mountain? Towering statue? Jesus? That sounds like an adventure to me…

We awoke just before dawn. Chris made tortas – crusty-bread sandwiches with Mexican fillings (we like beans, avocado, tomato, and chipotle) - for a midday picnic, and we headed out to catch a third-class bus to neighboring León (about an hour, see previous blog post), crossing the state line into Guanajuato in the process. From León we needed to take another third-class bus to the smaller city of Silao (another hour), and then, from the bus station in Silao, we boarded what looked like a small school bus that would take us up the long and winding – and rocky – road to… well, to Jesus.

Along the way we gazed out the windows at some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes we’ve yet seen here, making the ride itself as much of an experience as… well, as Jesus. Mainly this was because we left the highways that we usually ride on the bus for much, much smaller roads. The photos I took (see the photo album) are, I think, some of the most “Mexican” I’ve taken so far, in the sense that they fill the American stereotype of what rural Mexico looks like. Stereotype or not, I love what these photos were able to capture.

Cubilete de Cristo Rey

Dry semi-deserts patched with small green trees and smaller brown shrubs. Rolling fields of tequila-producing blue agave plants. A horse tied up under a tree. A woman walking along the side of the road with a child in her arms. The towers of a European-looking church placed seemingly in the middle of nowhere. A little burro – yes, a burrito – poking his head around for something to eat as the bus rolls by. And – though I took no pictures of them – there were beggars, mostly women and children, the children dirty and mostly in old torn clothing, sometimes alone, looking lost.

And the bus rolled on, on and on and on, going up the edges of the mountain on a road paved with rocks that made the whole bus bounce continuously, even as it whipped around hairpin turns that left you peering over the edge of a valley that seemed to withdraw farther and farther away. As the bus drew near to the summit - as we ascended to Jesus - food stands started cropping up along the side of the road. No McDonald’s here, only family fondas, outdoor diners set up like long tables around which people gathered to eat home-cooked, home-stewed, home-grilled food, served in brown clay pots and heavy gray molcajetes.

Finally we approached the monument itself, and the bus stopped to let everyone off. An older gentleman tapped us on the shoulder and told us not to follow everyone else because it was quicker up the back staircase. He was right. And then there he – He? – was, Jesus himself, standing tall on the top of the mountain.

Chris had visited this monument before, on her last trip to Mexico in 2006. When she shared her adventures with her academic adviser, a Catholic himself (and also working on research this year in nearby San Luis Potosi), he remembered his own visit here and recalled he found this particular monument to Christ the King “kind of Stalinist.” I suppose that assessment had me prepared for just about anything.

The heavy metal Jesus has his arms out at his sides, palms mostly down, as if he is attempting to calm a stormy world. Two cherubic angels stand at his sides, one on his left holding up a royal crown, the other on his right holding up a crown of thorns. Jesus himself stands on a spherical structure that looks something like a globe. Underneath the concrete globe is a small sanctuary, of which the most striking thing is a massive bronze crown of thorns that, just above our heads, rings the ceiling of the entire circular sanctuary. Also above our heads, some ways above this crown of thorns, is a more traditionally royal crown, smaller in size.

We left the sanctuary and wandered over to the information panels on the edge of the monument platform. They told the story of how and when the monument was built, as well as a little history on the Christian concept of Christ the King.

The festival of Christ the King, which takes place every year in late November – even in Lutheran churches – was made part of the church calendar by papal encyclical in 1925, notably not during but between the great wars. A decade later, this region of Mexico – northern Jalisco, southern Zacatecas, and here in western Guanajuato – put the concept into very concrete practice.

When the government began a brutal repression of Roman Catholicism in the 1930s, a number of priests and laypeople resisted. Some priests continued to offer the sacraments and were executed, later to be named martyrs of the church. And while priests and bishops officially refused to support a violent rebellion, many laypeople did take up arms. When they were killed, they were said to have cried a very curious rebel yell: ¡Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!

How quickly the world turns: Only ten years after what became known as the Cristero War, this massive monument to Christ the King was built, without government interference, in the heart of rebel territory, in a place that martyrs called home, in the very center of Mexico, a powerful symbol of what these Cristeros stood for.

But of course, the Cristero War, like any war, was hardly black-and-white. One of Chris’ host families from a previous visit continues to have a tenuous relationship with the Church because the family patriarch was beaten and robbed by raiding bands of Cristero rebels. Some historians continue to claim that the Cristiada was fomented by wealthy landowners who saw their power threatened by a newly socialist government; they, like so many others, used the power of religion to protect their possessions and keep out any threats to the status quo.

None of this means that there weren’t everyday Catholics who desperately sought out the sacraments from outlaw priests; none of it nullifies Padre Toribio Romo’s faithful dedication to his vocation, even in the face of state violence and repression. But this is the messy nature of giving Christ the man-made title of “king.” It inevitably ends in a knotty tangle of the secular and the sacred, of monarchism and monotheism. The golden crown may hide the blood better than a thorny one, but there is always blood, always, always.

Well. I suppose I should save any more meditations on Christ the King for November, or it will threaten to take over this entire blog post like Napoleon on a European rampage. And, anyway, you can only look at the monument to Cristo Rey for so long before your gaze is pulled away, in our case by the earthly landscape that lay all around us – and by the clouds that were now at eye level.

At this altitude your breath gets shorter; there’s not quite as much oxygen as down below. But the view takes your breath away anyway. We looked out over the bajio – the famous fertile lowlands of this region of Mexico – and to the dusty mountains that border it. Just a little lower on this particular mountain, a soccer match was taking place on a dirt pitch in the place where the mountain had been flattened out a bit. It reminded me of the ruins of an ancient Aztec ball court in the mountains of Xochicalco, near Cuernavaca. Outdoor team sports have been in Mexico for a long, long time…

We stopped in a little convenience store inside the monument to buy some cold Cokes for our picnic lunch – is Christ the king even over Coca-Cola? ...sometimes it’s hard to tell – and stuffed ourselves on bean-and-avocado sandwiches. We sat peacefully at the mountain’s summit for a little while longer, and then it was time to go. Leaving Jesus on his mountain, we boarded the yellow school bus and made our winding way back down to the ground, another adventure come to an end.

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