Power from above

Pilate therefore said to Jesus, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above....”

On Sunday, April 3 our Guatemala mission team made a tour of Santiago Atitlán in the company of Dolores, a native of this Mayan town on the shores of Lago de Atitlán.

One stop in the tour led us up a narrow alleyway to a small space in front of a small building with an open doorway, which appeared dark in the bright light of a sunny morning. In this small space Mayan women sat greeting visitors, along with a couple of men. They are guardians of a shrine we came to visit.

High in the mountains of Guatemala live the descendants of the ancient Mayan people, speaking their own language and with their own customs which distinguish them from those Guatemalans who descend from Spanish ancestry.

In this village Mayan religious beliefs exist alongside the Catholicism brought to Central America by missionaries following in the path of the conquistadors. In the local parish church and throughout the streets of Santiago, there is abundant evidence of the intermixture of Mayan and Christian saints and deities or quasi-deities.

We came to visit this place dedicated to Maximon, who we were told was the most important local deities or saints, around whom a strong cult is formed.

In groups of two or three we followed our tourguide inside the small darkened building. When my turn came I took in the scene as Dolores explained what was going on.

Maximon appears as a carved wooden face topped with a head-dress, with a short body clothed in colorful cloths. From his mouth dangles a cigar. To Maximon's side stands an acolyte with an ashtray underneath the tip of the cigar. Every so often the acolyte carefully nudged the ash into the tray. On a shelf near Maximon's head were two quart bottles of beer; at his feet bottles of rum, and are many candles burning.

On that morning, facing Maximon and kneeling on the floor, were three people. A young couple knelt silently and solemnly. To their right knelt a young man who appeared to be the shaman. He was addressing Maximon in the local Mayan dialect, in a voice both insistent and pleading. I was immediately reminded of an attorney before the bar, arguing a case to an indifferent judge.

Later, outside, Dolores explained that the shaman was there on behalf of the couple to plead for a blessing on a new business venture they were to undertake. She further explained that our presence was no intrusion on their privacy, but was welcome.

I went away with many thoughts about the experience, and those thoughts crystallized around what appeared to me to be the great contrast between a devotion to Maximon and a devotion to our dear Lord Jesus, and the contrast between the power attributed to Maximon in that scene and the power we see displayed in our Savior Jesus Christ.

The words of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel to his disciples came to mind:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25b -28)

In the image of Maximon, plied with cigars and beer and rum in exchange for favors, I can read at the very least a projection of the usual human valuation of power.

Yesterday we remembered Jesus washing his disciple's feet; a humble self-abasement. I thought to myself, “If Maximon really wants to show us how powerful he is, let him get down and kiss the feet of that couple kneeling there.”

At the end of our morning tour we entered Iglesia de Santiago, the local parish church; a place in which depictions of Mayan saints and Christian saints are displayed. Here for more than a decade Fr. Stanley Rother, an Oklahoman, presided as parish priest. So beloved was he that he was known as Padre A'plas; which means “Francis”. His was a ministry in that place which was all about service. We heard from our tour guide how Padre A'plas fed her and her family when she was a malnourished child of struggling parents. This priest founded a local medical clinic, oversaw a farm to feed hungry people, saw to the translation of the New Testament into the language of that place, conducted the Liturgy of the Eucharist, trained catechists to teach faith in Jesus, and so befriended the people in general that he was ushered in and welcomed to the heart of the town.

When the Civil War erupted, this priest – who was by all accounts not very politically minded – found himself in a dangerous place when the government of Guatemala sent out death squads across the country to eradicate rebels. Those troops came to Santiago and occupied the town, and were viewed by the locals as an unwelcome.

The killings started, and bodies started turning up. Padre A'plas had to make a choice. Would he stay with his people, or would he leave?

He left for awhile for Oklahoma, but he couldn't stay away, so he returned. His attitude appears in this quote from a letter he wrote during this time:

“I haven’t received any death threats as such, but if anything happens that is the way it is supposed to be.”

In the end he was assassinated by a trio of men, and no one has ever been convicted of any crime. Along with him died many others in the Christian community there. He is remembered as a saint, with a shrine on the walls of the church telling the story of his life.

I began by quoting Jesus responding to Pilate's threatening words. Said Pilate: “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”

Pilate is here offering the worst threat he can make. He threatens to kill Jesus. Jesus knows this, of course, and he's remained silent. In this Jesus is simply acting out his understanding that he is in front of one of the rulers of the Gentiles who lord it over others; who make others their slaves to do their bidding. As he taught his disciples, so he is acting. “It will not be so among you.”

Pondering this, we need to ask ourselves “Who has the power here?”

It's Jesus who is wielding the real power. Threats of death, though they bring distress to him, do not deter him. Here, as in the rest of John's Gospel, Jesus is the one wielding the real power.

The power he wields is the power of servanthood; a power rooted firmly in the knowledge that the Lord God, not Pilate, not anyone else, is in control of life and death; that both realms belong to God.

Father Rother, or Padre A'plas, as he was called by those who loved him, knew this. Knowing this, he was able to say: “A shepherd doesn't run.”

We shouldn't be critical of the cult of Maximon and not look at our own cultural assumptions about power. Our fear of death and desire for security prompts our seemingly endless offerings to the gods of War; our propensity for euphemisms to avoid the subject of death, our propensity to worship gods of wealth and excess.

The power of Jesus is not afraid of anything Pilate can do.

Somehow, in the mystery of God's ways, any power Pilate had over Jesus was because Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit all agreed to let Pilate have his illusions of power.

In his heart, Jesus knew that Pilate indeed had no power. Jesus had the power over death, and Pilate didn't need to know that for it to be true.

A relationship with Jesus draws us into the mystery of this power over death. In his death he destroys the power of death to keep us in fear. This is the great truth Holy Church offers to you and I for our trust and obedience. In his death he embraces us in all of our foolishness, faithlessness, vacillation.This is truly the power that overcomes the power of death in our lives.

Image: Photo of Fr. Stanley Rother in shrine to his memory at Iglesia de Santiago in Santiago de Atilan, Guatemala