VENERATION DAY TO
"EL CRISTO DE ESQUIPULAS"
Crucified Cristo de Esquipulas, with his mother standing on his right, St John on His left and Mary of Magdala kneeling at the bottom of His cross.
BY IRIDE APARICIO
ESQUIPULAS, GUATEMALA -- Every January 15, the Central-American country of Guatemala experiences one of the largest Catholics' peregrinations from around the world to The temple of Esquipulas. Located on top of a Hill, the temple, which is a Basilica, is a Massive white Spanish-style rectangular building, and the only temple in America, built with four identical bell-towers, one in each one of its four corners. The church is located in Chiquimula, a state so picturesque that it is "Called the Pearl of the West," which is located 175 Kilometers West of Guatemala City, in the strategic geological locality where Guatemala borders with Honduras to the North and with El Salvador to the South.
History books tells us that in the year 1595, commissioned by a Hispanic priest, who had arrived to Guatemala with the conquistadores, Quirio Cataño, a local sculptor living in Antigua, another departamento of Guatemala was commissioned by a priest, to carve, in wood, a vara y media (a vara is 32.909 inches, and the statue measures a vara and a half) statue of a Christ on the cross.
Many historians believe that the original statue was white,(now is dark brown) but we prefer to adhere to the theory that Cataño his scuptor, was aware of medical facts (dating to Roman times) which explain that the bodies of those who were crucified, because they died in a vertical position, their skin darkened after death because of the accumulation of blood, all over their bodies, As an scuptor, Cataño, may have known that fact, or being told about it, and when carving the image, he may selected darker wood.
After completed, Cataño's crucified Christ was installed in a church, in Antigua, that had been founded by the Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th Century as the Grand Colonial Capital of the Spanish Empire in America and continued as the capital for more than 230 Years, from the 16th to the 18th Centuries, under the name of Santiago de Los Caballeros de Guatemala.
And it was during the years that the crucified Christ was being exhibited there, that His tan skin ,began attracted people who could easily identify with Him, because His skin was similar to their skin's color. We ought to remember that the skin of the Mayans, of the Ketchi, of the Pipiles, Mames, and Pocomames, to name a few tribes, had been tanned by the hot Guatemalan sun in the fields where they worked as farmers, and that also to the skin of the Mestizos, (as the the sons and daughters of White Spaniards married to Guatemalans where named). So, because the Christ looked like them, hundreds began visiting the Cristo, allowing the priests and monks to convert them to Catholicism. Many did, and when they began praying to The Christ asking for miracles. according to writings, in the Church's Archives, the miracles started happening: Completely blind people recuperated their sight,deaf people began hearing again, people who had entered the church with crutches, left their crutches in the church's floor and left the church walking on their own. Physicians certified every one of the cures and when admitting that admit, there was no logical or medical reason for them, the church qualified them as "miracles."
Qualified as a "miracle' may also be one of the strangest happenings that happened to the statue, aside from ITS wood getting darker and darker every year, that was attributed to being inside a small church where hundreds of wax candles's black smoke filled the air, and that the wood combined with the oil that they used to clean it, had absorbed the smoke's ashes for centuries. This so called "miracle" is described by Jose Luis Garcia in his book, ESQUIPULAS, second edition l954. In that book when he writes that in the book of baptisms 1732-1742, Folios 97, 98, was written that in April of l739 as Don Diego Joseph Carzelem, an Esquipulas' Priest, had asked his Bishop, Don Pedro Pardo de Figueroa, to document the experience of Father Don Antonio de Aldana, a priest of Zacapa y Frai Juan Ramon de Ulloa belonguing to the order de los Minimos. In his statement, Father Carzelem affirms that after he opened the crystal door of the Christal cabinet (Vitrina Altar) where the now named El Cristo Negro, (the Black Crist) was kept, and began cleaning it, he noticed sweat on HIS forehead. "His forehead was wet and His right eye was closed," he writes, "And His sweat was falling over His right eye. I cleaned the statue with a purified piece of cloth three times,and dried the sweat, but the sweat continued, giving me the impression that the image was crying." .
And because the miracles continued, In l735, another priest, named Father Pedro Pardo Figueroa, after experiencing what physicians determined was a miraculous cure. after praying to the statue, when he became Archbishop of Guatemala, years later, in gratitude to the Christ, he commissioned the construction of a basilica to shelter HIS statue. It was selected to be placed in Esquipulas, because it is a Geographical strategically point where three countries meet. The magnificent Spanish basilica was finished in 1750, It was promoted to cathedral status by Pope Pius Xll in l956.
Since then the church is visited by more than 4.5 million pilgrims every year, and around 1:5 million in the day leading up to Cristo de Esquipulas feast (celebrate on January 15, ) considered its Patron's Festival. There is another celebration, in His honor, this one on March 9th, which marks the date when the image arrived first in the city during a visit, in the year l840.
In l959, A Benzedrine monastery was attached to the cathedral to care for it,with the monks being sent by St. Joseph Benzedrine Abbey in Louisiana, in the United States. Pope John XXIII promoted the church to Basilica Status in l961. For those who do not know the difference, between a Church and a Basilica, to be a Basilica is the highest permanent designation for a church building in the Catholic Religion. ,It has especial spiritual, architectural and historical significance. So much significance that In l996 the Basilica was visited by Pope John Paul II during his second apostolic visit to Guatemala to mark over Four Hundred Years of Veneration to "De Cristo Negro."
If not with different orchestras playing, marimbas, mariachis, dancers, and fire crackers displays, as it is during the days before and after the peregrination, the Cristo may be visited every day, during certain hours at His Temple, All a visitor needs to do, is get into a line outside the temple, and wait to be allowed inside by a monk through a side door. As you enter the temple, you will find yourself standing on a small room, where, at the center of the room, you will see a heart-braking life-size image of a flagellated, bleeding white Christ on the floor, as if he had fallen on it, and is now struggling to get up. As you walk around the statue, another door leads you to the Basilica, that you enter from the back, Standing in front of the main altar, are the statues (called Imàgenes in Spanish) that are pictured at the beginning of this article. You could stop for a few seconds, in front of His cross to say a quick prayer, and even touch HIS feet, or cross and then follow the line as it leaves the temple through another side door.
The temple is massive in size. but during visiting hours, filled with people, Some are sitting down on the few pews, others kneeling on the floor praying, Most of them lighting candles, hundreths of candles placed on metal tables on different places, So the temple is dark, impregnated with the smell of incense, and illuminated only by the sun penetrating through its windos and the flickering of candles.
For those who are religious, a visit to the Basilica of Esquipulas will be a moving, life-changing, unique experience, And for those who had been labelled "terminal" by their doctors and need a miracle, a peregrination to visit "El Cristo Negro"de Esquipulas" may renew their faith in a healing Christ