In reporting from our Holy Cross mission in Peru this month, Fr. Don Fetters, C.S.C., explains to us why all of the country is decked in purple this month. In the process, he explains how an over 300-year-old miracles continues on today in the Christian faithful there.
It’s a purple month in Lima—and not even Advent or Lent! The penitent color is everywhere—hung on light poles, draped from windows, decorating churches, strung across intersections; even Inca Kola (Peru’s Coke) changes its trademark packaging colors from blue and yellow to purple and white for the month of October.
So why so much purple? By far the largest popular religious celebration in Peru is El Señor de los Milagros (Lord of Miracles), and its distinctive colors are purple and white. The Solemnity of the Lord of the Miracles is observed in Lima on the 28th, but celebrated with massive processions, brass bands, dancing, and a tremendous outpouring of devotion all month long.
What has gone on for just under 325 years now, and seems to be gaining strength, began with a West African slave who, with less innate talent than intense devotion and divine inspiration, painted the original image of what became known as the Dark Crucified Christ – dark, not in reference to the painting itself but because it was the center piece for the assembly hall of the Angolan slaves who formed the first Catholic Confraternity in 17th century Lima.
At that time the African slave population made up about a third of the 50,000 Lima inhabitants. The Confraternity members, with the help of the friars in Lima, provided for the Angolan slaves perhaps the kind of religious and social services the Knight of Columbus provided for U.S. Catholics at the end of the 19th Century.
The Confraternity’s Crucified Christ took on even more importance in 1655 when a powerful earthquake shook Lima leaving thousands of people dead or homeless and destroying most churches and other large structures. Though the Confraternity’s hall was completely destroyed, the wall carrying the Crucified Christ was left completely intact, miraculously without a scratch!
Twelve years later another earthquake struck Peru in October and the tsunami that followed carried away a large part of the towns of Callao and Lima and brought down the chapel that recently had been built around Crucified Christ. All that remained of the chapel was the original adobe wall with the same image that had survived the previous earthquake; and once again miraculously intact. And so, not surprisingly the image became known universally as El Señor de los Milagros.
Soon after the events surrounding the 1687 earthquake, a copy of the image was made on an oil canvas to be carried in procession that year and accompanied by the fervent prayer that God spare the Lima residents from nature’s rage. It’s been carried in procession through the streets each October ever since, becoming the most recognized religious image in Peru.
In our Holy Cross parish, El Señor de la Esperanza, which covers a population of 250,000 people, five large (10-15 foot tall) reproductions of the original oil painting are carried through the different neighborhoods. In all, by the time October is finished, two million Peruvians from all classes of society will have marched in procession carrying the image of their beloved Señor de los Milagros.
El Señor de los Milagros isn’t miraculous just because a mural remained standing though two earthquakes and a number of humans attempts to destroy it, or because under the gaze of its Crucified Christ earthquake victims were fewer. The simple lesson of this tremendous devotion is that a miracle isn’t an event to be observed by spectators, nor is it limited to a moment. In the case of El Señor de los Milagros, the miracle continues on—in the otherwise inexplicable outpouring of faith on the part of millions of Peruvians each year who in the spirit of their penitential purple turn to the Crucified Christ to be renewed.
And so the 21st Century descendents of first Catholic Confraternity don their purple tunics and capes and white mantillas to lead the multitude of faithful each year through the streets of Lima singing: “Lord of Miracles, we, your devoted followers, come to you in procession to ask your blessing. May we make our country great, marching confidently as faithful Christians. United as one, we ask you to guide us with your light.”