There are few places in the world that inspire the senses more than Rio. A city placed on a bay of beauty; the sea caressing the stretched golden beaches while its hunchback mountains surround and embrace all below.
Rio is tiara glitzy, bossa-nova breezy, sultry warm and cool to be.
What were the first Portuguese navigators thinking just over 500 years ago? In their little wooden caravel boats, on a hot January day, they must have been seeing things because what they saw as a river was actually a bay. A beautiful bay. But they sailed on by.
Rio de Janeiro; the River of January. The most famous misnomer in the world.
We arrived in March. Just married, my wife and I, having spent part of our honeymoon a little north in Rio state, we entered into the city by coach over the famous Niteroi bridge. The bridge, with its impressive 13 km span, acts as a long, narrow passageway into the city. Crossing it takes some time but after our long drive, people were beginning to wake up and realise where they were in the midday light.
And then we heard excited gasps and chatter, a rush of arms moving as people reached for their phones and pointed out the window. The atmosphere was electrified by the sighting of a far-off figure, up in the sky.
I heard people cry, ‘the Christ’, ‘look, the Christ’!
In the blink of an eye, I crazily thought the second coming had arrived but I soon saw the marvel that others saw. On the far off mountaintop, the figure we know so well whether we’ve been to Rio or not, stood Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer, welcoming us to Rio.
What a sight. He was far off and distant but we still looked at him in awe.
This iconic statue, created with its modernist Art Deco appearance, is emblematic of not just Rio but the whole of Brazil. It represents a modern Latin America but with a vestige of its colonial Catholic past.
However, I think Christ the Redeemer is something more transcendent than an artistic or cultural icon. It’s universal, it impacts everybody who sees it, even if they don’t know what it really represents.
It is, the resurrected Christ.
I believe many works of art were inspired by the Holy Spirit to bring people to God. Christ the Redeemer is certainly this.
Heitor was an atheist at the beginning of the project but by the end, he was a different man. He came to faith in the very person the statue was celebrating. He was converted in the process of creating the work.
I can see why. This representation of Jesus speaks to our time. This is a Christ victorious and welcoming, not crucified or suffering (and that sits rather well with my Protestant sensibilities).
Meanwhile, on the shores below, we were checking into our hotel room in front of the Copacabana beach. If heaven has a view from its front window, I’d like to think it’s something like this.
The beach rolled out in front of my eyes into a hazy bright horizon, like a golden carpet laid out especially for its guests, whilst the vast deep Atlantic azure rolled onto the shore with hypnotic regularity.
We had arrived and it was time to swim and play.
Rio is a marvellous metaphor for the world (it is known affectionately by Brazilians as the cidade maravilhosa). Like much of the earth’s natural beauty, it is a gift to humanity for us to enjoy, find our rest in and restore our souls.
Maybe you have your own ‘marvellous city’ or place of retreat, where you can pause, drink from its well and be restored. These places serve as important filling stops on life’s journey.
But there’s more to why I think Rio is a metaphor for the world. I paint the picture in bright colours and joy. It is. But there’s dark and shade among the light. Rio is also a place of violence, poverty, exploitation and sadly even pollution. Just like everywhere else, except the sad thing here is that it’s often in the extreme.
It breaks my heart. How such a beautiful place, a natural gift from our creator God, can become so broken.
But it’s what the Christian story talks all about. It speaks of a paradise lost; our banishment from Eden. No matter how hard we try, our human natures just seem to revert to our original sin.
I then remember our Christ the Redeemer, looking down on the city, his arms outstretched and I recall this most incredible passage of scripture:
The Son (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together. Colossians 1:15-17.
In the beauty and in the ugliness of this city, Christ has redeemed it all, holding it all to himself and emerging victorious, conquering the sin that brings death and destruction.
We look up to him, to find our rescue and new life.
Paradise can be regained. Restoration work can begin.
The city, need only look and live in its Cristo Redentor.
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Colossians 1:13-14.
And this is how in Rio, I saw Jesus in a new way.
Because, every city, town, and village have its own Christ the Redeemer, in a spiritual realm.
That image of Christ, so impressed on my mind, of him, ascended, looking down, holding the world within his outstretched arms, welcoming all of humanity in its diversity and vulnerability, messiness and glory.
And in himself, is a new beginning, the firstborn from among the dead.
Humanity restored. And a paradise to be regained.
You don’t have to go to Rio, to see amazing beauty. You can see Christ redeeming the world in your church and your communities. We can see the beginnings of the new creation at work all among us and in the world.
We need only look out and up and accept his open welcome.
Jeremy – Not Only Sundays (About Us).
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Scripture quoted from the NIV translation.
Images sourced on www.pixabay.com image under a creative commons licence CC.