Today is a special holiday in Costa Rica- a Holy Day. It is the day that Catholics celebrate the patron saint of Costa Rica, La Virgin de Los Angeles, also known as La Negrita. Around the country, preparations have been in progress for weeks already. This is the holiday that brings pilgrims from all over Costa Rica, and even from neighboring Panama and Nicaragua, walking all the way to the Basilica in Cartago where the little black statue of an indigenous Mary is enshrined. It is predicted that 2.5 million people, half the country, will make the pilgrimage this year to pay homage and ask for special blessings from La Negrita. Many penitent will crawl on their knees the last mile or so.
As missionaries, it is important for us to know about the local traditions and religious beliefs of the people that we are here to serve. We try our hardest not to be “agents of American culture” bringing the North American Way in our baggage. We try to see the world through the eyes of the people in our new culture. So we come as learners. We have learned the history of La Negrita, visited the Basilica countless times with teams and students, and studied the Catholic doctrine a bit to give us some background to the sites we see at this holy shrine. We have learned that the secret to the longevity of the Catholic church around the world is that their doctrine permits the inclusion of local legends and saints (and often local gods, renamed with “Christian” names). The church thrives when the locals have a saint that looks native to the area.
The story goes that on August 2, 1635 a native girl found this little statue made of black stone. She brought it home, but twice it mysteriously reappeared back in the original location. So the local townsfolk decided that it was a manifestation of the divine and it wanted a shrine built to it. In 1824 it was declared the Patron Saint of Costa Rica. The Basilica where it is now housed is not the original because the first few churches were destroyed by earthquakes from the nearby Volcan Irazu. Outside, this new version also includes “holy water” piped in from an underground spring. People stand in line, often for hours, with their empty jugs and bottles waiting to fill up with holy water. Inside, the walls of the shrine are lined with display cases filled with silver charms representing body parts “healed” by La Negrita. People can buy a charm representing whatever request they are praying for, and when their prayers are answered, they give the charm back to the church as a testimony to the healing power of La Negrita.
I’m not writing this blog to bash the Catholic Church. The point I want to make is that it is in our nature to WORK to reach God. From the days of the Tower of Babel to the selling of Papal Dispensations to the modern believer crawling on his knees in penitence, it is our human nature to try to work to earn forgiveness. We all need to be set free from our self-inflicted bondages, the chains that tie us to this earth. And that is why Jesus came.
Jesus came preaching Grace and he turned the religious world upside down with teachings about the Upside Down nature of the Kingdom of God. The first shall be last. Love your enemies, pray for those who curse you. Don’t stand in the streets making a show of your prayers like the pharisees did. Pray to the Lord in secret, and the Lord will reward you openly. Grace which can not be earned or deserved. Forgiveness which sets us free to forgive each other. Love which lays down his life for those who hated him. The Upside Down Kingdom has come. And that is our message of love to Costa Rica.