The Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro with outstretched arms turned 80 on Oct. 12. The 125-foot, 699-ton statue “cost $250,000 in 1931 (estimated to be $3 million today). It was funded by donations from residents of what the mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, called ‘the world’s most beautiful city.'”
It was, from start to finish, a Catholic project. Donations came through Catholic parishes around the country. The architect and sculptor responsible for the statue were required to surrender all rights to the city’s Archdiocese. In 2006, the statue was declared a Catholic sanctuary, which allowed marriages and baptisms to be performed at its base, in an effort to “reclaim … the sacred sense of the monument.”
Christ the Redeemer has spawned clones in other countries, the most recent ones in Poland last year and in Peru this past July, each one claiming to be taller than the previous. In my home state of Arkansas, “Christ of the Ozarks” on Magnetic Mountain peers down on Eureka Springs. And just down the road from us, the city of Taubaté, where a new congregation of the Lord’s people meets, sprouted its 23-meter version on a local hill.
The original statue is often called a monument and that it is: a monument to the powerlessness of inanimate materials to change a life, a city, or a country.
The statue has not been able to keep the city from becoming one of the most immoral and crime-ridden in the world. Neither has it impeded the astounding loss of Brazilian adherents of the Catholic Church, from 95% to 70%, in this most Catholic country in the world, in terms of sheer numbers.
It is not the first. From the altar of Baal (1 Kings 18) to Israel’s idolatry to modern times, men have erected their idols, icons, and images, careful to choose good materials (“wood that will not rot”) and design workable projects (“make an idol that will not fall over”) for the perfect monument to their passions (Isaiah 40:20), in hopes of being heard and blessed and of exercising religious and secular powers.
But the result is only self-mutilation and frustration.
A work of the hands of men, the imposing Christ the Redeemer statue is the product of that impotent impulse that caused the raising of Babel, the construction of the Pantheon, the forging of the Great Buddha.
After Isaiah’s ironic description of the idol worshiper who uses wood both for fire to cook his food and for building an idol, he reaches the tragic point,
“He feeds on ashes; his deceived mind misleads him. He cannot rescue himself, nor does he say, ‘Is this not a false god I hold in my right hand?'” (Isaiah 49:20).
The towering reminder from God earlier in that same chapter is this: “Is there any God but me? There is no other sheltering rock; I know of none” (verse 8). The invisible God is the only true Deity. He it was who sent fire to consume Elijah’s altar, he it was who sent Israel into captivity for idolatry, he it was who became God-with-us among men.
And he it was who forbade any religious images to be worshiped or venerated.
For there’s a great difference between the Christ the Redeemer statue and the real Jesus Christ. The former has to be taken care of by its people. It had to be carried up the mountain, erected by workers. It has to be protected from vandals. It recently underwent a restoration project.
But the real Jesus Christ takes care of his people. He redeems them from sin and transports them into the kingdom of God. He is present, invisibly but actually, with his people, wherever they go, whatever they do in the fulfillment of the Father’s will.
At some point, a statue falls down or disintegrates. Never will the Son of God diminish. On the contrary!
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever!” (Hebrews 13:8).
J. Randal Matheny
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