Monday, April 11, 2011

Ichmul: Lenten Reflections on the Black Christ

Thousands begin Stations of the Cross, ultimately leading
to mass with the Cristo Negro. Dozens of tour buses
denote the volume of faithful.
It may be said that the Yucatan takes its Lent seriously.  For those who have not visited Mexico (or any part of Central or Latin America, for that matter), this may come as a slight surprise; while Lenten observance around the world always touches upon the austere and penitential, there exists in Mexico a special delight in the sacrifice, a gusto in the repentance that pulls the faithful away from the day to day and toward a committment to that which tests the mind, body and spirit. Poignant displays of faith, not limited to elaborate Stations of the Cross, Lenten retreats and special devotions heighten the intensity of Christian devotion as Holy Week ultimately takes center stage.

As a testament to such committment, the small town of Ichmul hosts a special  April pilgrimage devoted to its well-known religious artifact known simply by many as El Cristo Negro - The Black Christ.  While there are undoubtedly many who immediately question as to the origin of the Christ and why, exactly, it's blackened, the answer reaches back to the 17th century.

Thousands of faithful line up to have
flowers, prayer cards and other religious
articles touched by the feet of the Cristo.

During a certain Lent in the middle of the 1600s, it is rumored that a tree in the center of Ichmul miraculously burst into flames every Friday without being consumed.  The local priest, awestruck at this occurrence, ordered the tree be chopped down and its trunk eventually carved into a crucifix by a mysterious traveling artisan. Its ability to heal the faithful, and eventually survive a devastating church fire (hence, blackened by the flames), has earned the Cristo Negro a place in the hearts of devout Yucatecans throughout the area.

As the Cristo Negro was unfortunately destroyed in the early 1900s as a result of a political unrest, one of two exact replicas made of the original Christ was used for the special celebration. Although too large to be carried in procession (it's over 10 feet tall!), the crucifix presides over the celebration in the center of town as a destination for the faithful this Lenten season.

Events focusing upon the Cristo Negro includes a mile-long pilgrimage centered on the Stations of the Cross as well as a mass to conclude the festivities.  The mass, featuring both readings and music ministry in Maya and Spanish, seeks to bring testament to the bilingual nature of the area.  Those who wish to have religious items touched by the Christ are welcomed to wait after all public events have ended. The event continues to grow exponentially, with an estimated 10,000-12,000 faithful attending the pilgrimage and over 100 priests from the Archdiocese officiating.

Through events such as these, the Yucatan continues to increase the faith of many while adding a unique Latin American flavor to the season of Lent. To all of our friends in the Yucatán, the U.S. and abroad, best wishes for a blessed and sacred Holy Week.

Want to know more about the Cristo Negro?  Recent newspaper coverage from the Diario de Yucatán detailing the pilgrimage (article is in Spanish):

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