Bathing in the waters, drinking them; cleansed inside and out and holy now. They thrice walked around the ancient Ahuehuete tree, hung through with offerings, flowers, fruit and little bags containing umbilical cords. They were ready to enter the sanctuary. The Dark Lord of the Cave was waiting.
Oxtoteotl is an Aztec deity. He's the God of War; the Destiny of the Night; the Dark Lord. His shrine is the back of a cave, which takes days of a snaking, spiral pathway through the mountains to reach. There is evidence of human sacrifice in His worship. He was one of the most popular Gods of the Aztec age. Pilgrims came from great distances to visit His shrine, above the modern-day town of Chalma, in Mexico State. He could heal; and He could protect.
In 1537, Augustian monks appeared in the area. They watched the thousands of pilgrims making their progress up the mountain-side. The religion was strong here, but two of their number, Brother Sebastian de Tolentino and Brother Nicolas Perea, were determined to smash it. This was their calling. This is where Christ should be.
They spread out amongst those gathered, evangelizing and talking about the 'Spanish God'. They visited the sanctuary and surveyed the dark, cylindrical shape of the Oxtoteotl stone. They saw the people dancing before him. The Augustian were appalled. For three days, they walked about the pilgrim paths, encouraging people to tear down the statue and convert to Christ. People laughed in their faces.
It was at night when Brother Sebastian de Tolentino and Brother Nicolas Perea climbed the mountain to the sanctuary for the second time. Their intent was clear. They were going to pull down the icon themselves. They would prove, with their bare hands, that their God was stronger and that nothing would happen, if they descrecated the centuries old sacred cave.
They arrived to find it devoid of worshippers, but a miracle had occurred! In place of Oxtoteotl now stood a statue of the crucified Christ, with his skin burnt a dark black. The floor was littered with the fractured remains of the Aztec icon, smashed to smithereens. No-one claimed responsibility. No-one had seen the statue being conveyed up the steep paths. God must have done it. The friars reported that, as the first Aztec pilgrims arrived, they all fell to their knees in 'apostolic piety'. The holy brothers wasted no time in converting them to Catholicism.
(There is another version, which says that the friars sculpted the Oxtoteotl stone into a representation of Christ on the cross. It's black because the Aztec stone was obsidian black.)
In the years that followed, the mouth of the cave was enlarged and a shrine dedicated to St Michael was established there. The people still visited in the same way, climbing the paths with incense and flowers; bathing in the spring and encircling the Ahuehuete tree.
Inside the cave, they danced to the dark Christ now that Oxtoteotl had gone. They left their offerings and were cleansed of their sins. They petitioned for healing and protection. The Augustian monks set up a monastery to cater to their needs.
Over a hundred years later, in 1683, a huge church was built upon the canyon floor. The image of Christ was brought down from the sanctuary and placed into it. El Convento Real y Sanctuaria de Nuestro Señor Jesus Christo y San Miguel de los Cuevas de Chalma (The Royal Monastery and Sanctuary of Our Lord Jesus Christ and Saint Michael of the Caves of Chalma) stands there still.
It is the second most visited site of Catholic pilgrimage in Mexico (the first is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City). Mexico state tourist board estimates that over 2 million people per year make the trip to Chalma. 50,000 people per day is the norm. Most are Mexicans, but some people fly in from countries all over the world.
The town has a plentiful number of lodgings and restaurants, as a result of the demand from pilgrims. Amongst the attractions are the church; the 17th century monastery; the cave up in the mountains; and many organized events, including parades and open-air ceremonies, in addition to regular services held inside the church.
There is also a high emphasis on public safety and crowd control. Patrols watch from both ground and in the air, with regular sightings of helicopters. Experts on crowd control train their apprentices here.
A river of people. We are immersed in a river of people. The sanctuary of Chalma is situated at the bottom of a canyon in the heart of this village. The passageway down into that canyon is narrow, lined with hundreds of vendors selling food and trinkets and crucifixes.
A river of people. A river of beautiful brown faces. A river that murmurs with language not our own. Are we pilgrims... or are we just tourists today?
... If you are new here, this is a sanctuary full of people who love you even if you are a stranger - just as my friend and I were loved and cared for by a river of strangers in Mexico. You are God's Beloved.
'Chalma Pilgrimage: Baptism in Foreign Waters' by Rev Karen Christensen
The crowds become part of the spiritual wholeness. Time within them passes without incident.
But there is a tragic reason why Chalma has become so adept at ensuring the safety of its millions of visitors. On February 13th, 1991, a Holy Week ritual involved the signs from the ashes, smoke lifted from a ceremonial flame inside the church. As it took place, the news reached those outside that they were missing it. There was a sudden stampede of humanity into the limited space inside. Twenty people died and forty more were seriously injured, mostly due to compression force, as the crowd surged. It is a scene that Chalma authorities never want to see repeated here again. Security has been stepped up ever since, so that no God will receive another human sacrifice here.
Holy Week, Easter, Lent and the feast day of the Christ of Chalma (July 1st) are the times when most pilgrims are in the sanctuaries. The most devout will visit it three times during their lives. The area is so famous that it's a common saying, in Mexico, that something can't be done until someone has 'danced at Chalma'.
Each time, they leave with their petitions heard and their sins cleansed. They have walked the ways and danced to the Dark Lord of the Cave, be He Oxtoteotl or, more often now, the black skinned Christ Himself. They take the sacred holiness home with them. They are truly blessed, in this place of power.