This past weekend was the annual three-day religious festival called Urkupiña, celebrating the Virgin of Urkupiña. There’s also a slideshow of our best photos at the bottom of this post.
The festival opens with a parade of traditional dances on Friday, similar to those seen on the left. Most dancers make a three year commitment to dance “for the Virgin” at this festival, and many continue dancing beyond three years. Saturday afternoon is also full of dancers, typically in more modern dress. We watched for over two hours on Saturday, and maybe saw half of the dancers.
As we made our way to the church, we passed countless stalls selling “miniatures”. You could buy mini houses, mini counterfeit money (Bolivianos, US Dollars, and Euros), mini diplomas, mini cars, etc. In some ways, it reminded me of a toy store. The purpose is to buy what you want to happen to you (for example, if you want to travel, buy a mini suitcase and a mini passport), then get it blessed by the priest (below left) and a witch doctor (below right). All the shops lining the entryway to the church reminded me of Jesus clearing the temple.
Another ritual involved going to a “mine,” buying a beer (cost: $2), and pouring it where you’re going to chip out a small stone from the mountain ($3). (The alcohol satisfies the Pachamama – Mother Earth.) You buy a kit ($1) containing ribbon, firecrackers, more alcohol, and confetti, and a witch doctor or medicine woman uses the kit and incense to bless you and the stone ($3).
Saturday night we got up at 3:00am to watch the Urkupiña Walk. People gather in the center of the city at midnight to begin the 13km walk to the site of the festival. The first group arrives around 5am, and there’s a mass every hour at the church beginning at 5:00.
I could not believe how many people were walking – there was a continual flow of people across a three lane highway for as far as we could see in both directions. There were vendors set up selling popcorn, drinks, etc. For people under 30, it’s more of a social event than a display of faith, although for the older generations I believe it really is an act of faith. And there’s a lot of drinking for all ages.
The thing that really struck me was that the festival was all very works-based. You must do these things (dancing, breaking off a rock, getting things blessed, walking the 13km, etc.) for God/the Virgin/Mother Earth to be satisfied. If not, you won’t get the blessings of a good job, lots of money, a big house, etc. It’s very selfish. And it’s missing the point. In addition to the idolatry of worshiping the Virgin and the Pachamama, there is so much emphasis on the rituals being a requisite of what pleases God. Instead, He is pleased by our hearts and our attitudes
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:36-39
But this doesn’t mean that works aren’t important; James 2:15-17 says:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
I think the works fit into the second commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. That is what God desires of our works – again it goes back to the heart. But we can’t do works to reconcile us with God; there are not enough good things we can do to live up to God’s standards. He demands perfection.
[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. – Romans 3:23-24
This is what so many people miss: it’s a gift. Our salvation (the restoration of our relationship with God) is not dependent on living a good life or performing the right rituals. It’s simply realizing that we can’t do it by ourselves and accepting His gift to us. And it doesn’t matter where we are, Bolivia or the US – people are caught into the trap of believing that by doing enough things they can satisfy God. That deception breaks my heart, and I believe it breaks His heart, too.