Going to See the Christ

When I think about the best coffee I have ever had, I think it would have to have been in Brazil.

There is a famous statue of the Christ in Rio de Janeiro called the Corcovado. Corcovado means “hunchback” in Portuguese, like the shape of the mountain that the statue is perched upon. I had always secretly wanted to see the statue after being mesmerized by the Corcovado and surrounding scenery in “Romeo + Juliet.” (Well, mesmerized first by Leonardo DiCaprio, then the Corcovado, if we’re being honest.) Thus, when finding out I had an overnight stay in Rio en route to Natal, Brazil, I seized the opportunity to visit the famous statue.

I remember how foggy it was when the day arrived, as I paced anxiously in the lobby, waiting for the bus to Corcovado.  When my Portuguese tour guide arrives to pick me up, there is no formal introduction. She looks at my ticket and says simply, “We are going to see the Christ.”

With the headquarters of the Catholic Church in Rome, Italy, not many people actually know that Brazil is the largest Catholic nation in the world. A Catholic priest first suggested a religious monument over the city of Rio in the 1850s. Princess Isabel of Portugal, the ruler of the day, saw no need for it, however, and the idea was nearly forgotten when Brazil became independent from Portugal some 40 years later. It was suggested once more by a local Catholic association in 1921, and this time approval was given to construct a statue of Christ on nearby Corcovado Mountain.

I am the only English speaker on our tour bus, meaning the guide has to give the tour in Portuguese, Spanish and then English only for my benefit. We stop halfway up the mountain at a scenic overlook for our first glimpse. There, perched calmly on the peak of the mountain stands Jesus – the 120 ft. statue of Christ with his arms outstretched in the surrounding mist. The fog swirls around the mountain’s tip, making him visible one moment and invisible the next.

It is such a beautiful view, I feel I need to sit down and meditate, but the tour guide will have none of it, flitting from side to side, urging us to look downward at the view of Rio. “Friend from America!…Look this way! Friend from America, do you see the stadium?…Friend from America, do you see our coffee trees?”

Back on the bus, we make the final climb to the top of the mountain, where freezing winds greet us. Having been warned a little too casually by the travel agent to bring a light jacket, I clutch the now-inadequate winter coat to my shivering body as the icy wind solicits gasps from tourists caught in shorts and flip-flops. Within minutes, my nose and fingers are completely numb.

Climbing up the long flight of stairs, I can now see the statue’s back. I timidly peer around the back of the statue and at the front. It feels kind of weird to be sneaking up on Jesus. At a distance, he looks like a cross, like he’s ready to do a swan-dive off the mountain, but up close, he is regal and slightly stern. There is a tiny heart in the middle of his chest, and his face is solemn, as if to say, It is a grim job to be done, this business of looking out over humanity.

The tall, green, lumpy islands remind me of Neverland – palm trees with green foliage and deserted, misty beaches with cream-colored sand curve out of site as they wind up mountainous peninsulas. There are inlets with the mountains reflected in them, as well as hotels and condos, all sitting a little too close to the water’s edge. On the other side of the city, the view of favelas on the hillside blur into orange and white, tan and sea-foam green with the modern Rio skyline looming large behind them.

Rio is a perfect mix of rich and poor – the Brazilian businessman in 1970s downtown Rio, the homeless pacing in front of the gritty condos, Catholic priests preparing for communion, the well-adjusted family of five, teenagers in flip-flops throwing Frisbee and flying kites on the beach, mangy dogs,  barefoot, grimy-faced children and desperate mothers of the favelas.

I soak in the view, one of my favorite verses echoing in my head, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

With the statue behind me, I close my eyes and set my heart free – free to leave my body and blow around in the wind, to circle the clouds on an icy breeze, to tickle the face of the Christ statue and dive towards the water in one rollicking swoop.

Now that I am finally here, I wonder, what should I do? Say a prayer? Make a wish?

I look at the statue, eying him carefully as if it really were Jesus and I could ask him questions.

“There are so many things I don’t understand.”

“Lord, why are you so hard to find?”

“Why do you speak to some people and not others?”

“How much of my life is a part of your will?”

Standing underneath one of the most famous statues of Christ in the world, I wait for something profound to happen, but I don’t suppose God works that way. I send several questions out into the wind, but my heart returns to me just as it left, in silence. It’s as if the statue is trying to tell me, “Spiritual experiences are not up here. They’re down there.”

And the statue, of course, is right.