A headline in today’s paper reads, “Tortugas: Liberadas por Ti” (Turtles: Liberated by You). The article tells about sea turtles that are found along Guatemala’s Pacific coast, the dangers they face, and efforts to save them. The biggest threat, along with pollution, is that turtle eggs and turtle soup are popular delicacies here. This dining tradition is now discouraged, and conservationists patrol the beaches to protect turtles. They place eggs in artificial nests so that turtles can hatch safely and race freely into the surf. Even after these efforts, however, only about one out of a hundred of these tiny creatures survive to adulthood.
While preaching in churches in Guatemala, I sometimes share a story about a turtle that wasn’t liberated, but instead liberated others. It’s an Okanagan (in western Canada) legend about a time when all animals lived in harmony and peace. Then one day Eagle challenged the other animals to a race. The stakes were high, for the loser would become the slave of the winner. One by one the animals foolishly accepted Eagle’s challenge—first Hawk, then Fox, Bear, Raven, and so on. Each animal lost and was enslaved. Eventually, only Turtle and Muskrat remained free.
One night, the Great Spirit appeared to Turtle in a dream. The Great Spirit told Turtle to race Eagle on behalf of all the animals. When Turtle told Muskrat about the dream, Muskrat opposed the idea. “You will lose,” said Muskrat. “Eagle is too fast.”
“I know Eagle is fast,” replied Turtle, “but the Great Spirit said I will win this race.” So they went to Eagle, and Turtle said, “I will race you tomorrow on one condition–that if I win, all of the animals will go free. If I lose, I too will be your slave.”
Eagle laughed, and agreed to Turtle’s condition. “When the Sun comes up,” Eagle announced, “we will race.” As Turtle crawled away, the animals laughed too, even though they were sad that they were not free.
As the race began the next morning, Eagle said, “Choose the starting place, Turtle, and I will race you any distance that you say.”
Following the Great Spirit’s guidance, Turtle explained to Eagle, “You must take hold of me in your talons, and lift me as far as your wings will carry us. When we are high over the cloud tops, I will tell you to let me go. Whoever reaches the ground first will be the winner.”
Surprised by these rules, Eagle picked up Turtle and began to flap his wings. Higher and higher they went, until at last turtle yelled, “Let me go!” Eagle released Turtle, and Turtle fell like a rock. Eagle’s efforts to catch up were in vain. As the animals watched in amazement, Turtle hit the ground moments before Eagle landed. Shouts of jubilation filled the air, and the animals cheered and danced.
The mood changed, however, when the animals noticed that Turtle had not moved. Muskrat tapped gingerly on Turtle’s shell. “Turtle, Turtle, you won! Please speak to us.”
After a long pause, Turtle’s head emerged, and Turtle whispered, “The Great Spirit told me that I would win, but the Great Spirit did not say I would survive. Now, you are slaves no more! Go, all of you, for you are free!” The liberated animals spread out in every direction. Wherever they went they talked about the race, and how Turtle set them all free.
As Holy Week approaches, we grieve that people in Guatemala, as in other parts of the world, suffer from brokenness and strife. We turn our attention to the way that God’s grace intervened in our world. We remember the passion, the surprising way that Jesus raced against the powers that enslave us. In amazement, we discover that Jesus died on the cross to set us free. With thankful hearts, we celebrate that God won, that Christ rose from the dead that we may live in harmony and peace. Cristo vive! Viva Cristo!