Flickering candles, each representing a prayer for the dead, glow eerily in the cavernous expanse of the basilica. Hushed voices are suddenly drowned in a sonic swell of organ pipes and treble voices. The music is hauntingly beautiful and the massive gold altar area is stunning in its artistry, it opulence and its sheer magnitude. It is easy to see how people are captivated by the mystery and pomp of the ritual–the choir’s voices echoing through the vaulted cathedral; the majesty of the organ; the smoke and fragrance of the incense and the clear tenor of the priest as he sings the mass.
On the other side of the enormous doors of the basilica, the atmosphere is very different. Throngs of people–some dressed in ghoulish costumes, some in street clothes–stroll around the plaza looking at street art depicting horrible images of death in its many guises. They browse the stalls of vendors selling their macabre wares, laughing and pointing out the most ghastly costumes to their children. Some pay to enter a pavilion where a multi-media shock show is scaring people out of their wits and making large sums of money for its producers.
A few blocks away, altars to the dead surround the towering monument in the city’s centre. Candles, photos and plaques bearing prayers and memorial messages are placed there by relatives and observed by passersby like objects in a museum.
Nearby, the streets are lined with papier maché sculptures, some of them three metres high, each depicting some fanciful image of death or the bizarre–weird combinations of people and animals; hideous dragons; skulls oozing blood; heads of women with monsters’ bodies bearing their fangs and appearing to scream. The sculptures are numbered, as they are entries in a competition, like floats in the New Year’s Day parade. One wonders if they are judged for their craftsmanship, which in some cases is superb, their creativity or their capacity to give little children nightmares for weeks to come.
In another town many hours away, high up in the front of a 16th-Century chapel, an idol commands the fanatical and loyal adoration of thousands of pilgrims every year. Though it was meant to represent Christ as a toddler, it looks more like a child dressed as a Musketeer. Most worshipers make no connection in their minds between the idol and the Christ child. Instead of a sword it wields a staff, and its benevolent smile is duplicated in copies varying in form from crayon drawings by children to costly clones in glass cases, for sale in the many stores surrounding the chapel. The idol is said to have powers of healing, and the walls of the adjacent “museum” are covered from floor to ceiling, often several layers deep, with prayers and messages of thanks for supposed miracles wrought, each bearing the image of…the image.
These disparate scenes are all faces of the same religion–one which claims to be Christian but bears no resemblance to the life, ministry, teaching, or commands of the Lord Jesus. Its followers do not know the Bible, nor are they encouraged to read it. They are consumed with death and superstition rather than with life and faith. Their lives are riddled with fear and doubt rather than with love and assurance. Though their religion leaves them empty and hopeless, they are so intimidated by church and culture and family that they actually fear being satisfied with the Truth.
Jesus–the living, conquering, saving Christ–said this:
“Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5.24, ESV)
Paul of Tarsus, the first Christian missionary, quoting Isaiah the prophet, wrote this:
“‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15.54-56, ESV)
John the Apostle, perhaps Jesus’ closest personal friend, wrote:
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4.18, ESV)
The face of religion–any religion–will in the end be twisted in a rictus of an agony far outstripping the horror of the papier maché faces lining the streets of the city.