Cultural Learning: The Lord of Miracles

Incense. Candles. Live bands. Fireworks. Veils.

Popcorn. Cotton candy. Barefoot reverence. Purple vestments. Dueling bands.

Balloons. Crosses. Flowers. Candied apples. 

Priests. Banners. Crucifixes. Ornamental street tapestries. And people. Lots of people. 

Men dressed in purple are carrying a massive painting of Jesus on a heavy pedestal. Others dressed in purple are following close behind, reciting their prayers and showing their devotion to the Lord of Miracles, some by walking barefoot. 

This all stems from a painting and an earthquake. In one of Lima’s cathedrals was a mural of crucified Jesus, painted in the 17th century by an Angolan slave. In 1655 an earthquake hit that destroyed most of Lima. The whole cathedral was destroyed, except for the wall with this painting of Jesus. It was a miracle that the mural had survived, and so the “Lord of Miracles” was born. 

Many Catholics in Peru believe that this manifestation of Jesus has the power to grant miracles. Some devotees pray for miracles and pledge to wear the purple vestment for the entire month of October if that miracle is granted. Others wear purple and follow the image, using the procession as an opportunity to pray for (and possibly earn) the miracle. This has become one the biggest religious events in Peru: Lima has a massive procession, and Arequipa has a large number of devotees as well.

So there Katie and I sat on a bench in the Plaza de Yanahuara. Incidentally, we were listening to one of Steven Hovater’s (of the Cedar Lane church) sermons, part of his series on Luke’s version of the Jesus story. We sat there thinking about a God who would enter into the human story with so little ceremony, showing the world what it really means to be human. The contrast with what we were seeing around us was stark.

As we sat there, the plaza we were in began to get ready for the procession. Banners were hung. Elaborate tapestries made of flowers and different colors of chalk decorated the roads. And the vendors came out: cotton candy, candied apples, popcorn, chocolate covered strawberries, and much much more. The Lord of Miracles was coming to the square, and everyone wanted to be ready to welcome him. 

The image of Jesus entered the square carried by a large group of men, devotees to this specific version of Jesus. Other devotees followed close behind, with a live band behind them. Close behind was another image, that of Mary the mother of Jesus. And another band, and more people. Others, dressed in regular street clothes, gathered around to see the image. The procession moved slowly, occasionally stopping to offer a prayer or blessing where an ornamental street tapestry had been laid out. The procession climaxed when it got Yanahuara’s cathedral. There the parish priest spoke, welcoming the Lord of Miracles to the neighborhood with words, prayers, and fireworks. 

It was quite a cultural experience, with varied layers of meaning. What bothered me more than the actual image of Jesus was the sense that Jesus was coming to the neighborhood that night—as if Jesus weren’t there already, every other day of the year, where two or three gather together in Jesus’s name, or in the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, and imprisoned. 

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the Lord of Miracles in Arequipa. His devotees know the story. They know that it’s a manifestation of Jesus, celebrated because the original image survived an earthquake. But we asked lots of people who he was, and got a remarkable number of answers. Some said it was Jesus. Some said it was another one of the saints. Some said that people pledge their devotion to earn a miracle, others that they receive a miracle and so spend the rest of their life giving thanks. 

The confusion is understandable. Religion has become complicated. The holidays and processions and celebrations together with the different versions of Jesus, Mary, and all of the saints is so integrated with the culture that it’s hard to keep straight. 

The whole experience renewed in a me a sense of wanting to share Jesus, the young teacher from Nazareth, who showed what God was really like without a whole lot of fanfare or ceremony. This Jesus enters into our daily reality and wants to redeem it. He reconciles us with God, and reconciles our daily relationships, with those around us, with ourselves, and with our world. The “Lord of Miracles” is the Lord of the Table to me. He’s the host that invites us into communion, community, and a shared mission.