11 December 2016
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The Rich Have Been Sent Empty Away”
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. (Luke 1)
If you ask me, Mary does not deserve her reputation. As the mother of Jesus, she is usually regarded as a humble, demurring young woman who plays a rather passive role in God’s big idea: meek, mild, and unobtrusive.
But the more I read and pray upon her story, the more she emerges out of that pious haze with which she has been surrounded, to take her place as a radical and even subversive actor in advancing God’s plan of mercy and compassion.
Think, for instance, of the Song of Mary (the Magnificat). This is a song which she sings in response to her cousin Elizabeth’s naming her as blessed among women (a text that we have been using here during Advent to affirm our own faith). “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Mary’s words are no submissive acquiescence to an external power and authority, but rather they are Mary’s invocation of the great prophet Isaiah, who repeatedly denounced the pride and arrogance that so afflicts us human beings, saying that “[Our] haughtiness shall be humbled, and the pride of humanity brought low” (Is. 2:17)
By invoking Isaiah in her own words, Mary aligns herself with this great prophetic tradition, and so we might go far as to say that she becomes one with the prophets—even one of the prophets—in her resistance to human arrogance in the face of God’s demands for justice. By so doing, she puts herself squarely on the side of the poor and marginalized, for as she sings in her song, God has “put down the mighty from their thrones … and sent the rich empty away”—whereas for the hungry, God “has filled them with good things, and those of low degree have been exalted.”
Which brings me to my point: in these days when we are all concerned on one hand that there is so much hatred, and violence, and untruth at play in our society, and on the other hand so little empathy, restraint, and honesty—in these days, communities of faith such as ours have a critical role to play in providing an alternative vision of what is valuable and important in human life. We have the challenge to be a community in which the virtues of compassion, understanding, care and concern are cultivated, and where they are experienced as a form of moral and spiritual resistance to what eats away at our sense of well-being, both as individuals and as a society.
We have, in other words, to become like Mary herself: to align ourselves with the prophets’ message, brought to fulfillment in Christ, that God’s righteous compassion and merciful justice are the foundations of what it means to be human. And let me hasten to say that a commitment to such a way of life is neither a liberal idea nor a conservative idea: it is merely a lived response to the heart of the gospel.
Now, if I’m right that Mary has a much more subversive nature than her reputation gives her credit for, then it is all the more evident in the tradition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whom we celebrate today. Think of how that story unfolds: the young Indian campesino Juan Diego is on his way early one morning, going “in search of the things of God”(as the story is told), just as night begins to turn to dawn. The timing, of course, is significant, for in native culture the dawn is always the moment of creation, the sign of God’s gift of a new day.
And then, in an apparition not unlike the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, Mary herself stands before Juan, inviting his participation in making possible another manifestation of God’s identification with humanity—in this case the building of a shelter, a hermitage, a hospice (the Spanish word is a “casita sagrada,” or holy house), where the peoples displaced by the conquest will be able to turn to her for “her love, compassion, help and protection” (as she says), a place where their “laments can be heard and their miseries and sorrows remedied.”
It’s interesting to think, that after all the prayers of the Spanish conquistadors and their accompanying missionaries that God would bless and bring success to their efforts, that in the story of the Guadalupana the answer should come in the form of Mary identifying herself not with the Spanish wealth and power, but with the humility and need of the native people who have been subjugated through it. But then, there is nothing too surprising in that, is there? It is merely another manifestation of that subversive side of Mary that she first exhibited in the Magnificat: the mighty are put down, and the humble lifted up, and all that is the work of God.
And of course, from this intimate encounter between Mary the Mother of God, and the campesino Juan Diego, has come one of the most treasured spiritual traditions in all the Americas: a story that is a source of protection and sustenance to which countless millions have turned for succor and support. Just think of how ubiquitous are the images of Our Lady of Guadalupe that surround us here in New Mexico, including the retablo that is before you here in church, or our own parish courtyard, where a tile image of her quietly presides over the open space.
But, you may ask, why are we as a Protestant, Episcopal, Anglican church celebrating Guadalupe when she is not really a part of our tradition at all? Isn’t that a bit artificial, or even clichéd?
Well, yes it is true that the tradition of Our Lady of Guadalupe is most strongly associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and especially its Native and Hispanic members. But that is why it becomes all the more significant for us to enter into and embrace her story, because it is one way in which we fulfill our own Christian mission to be a place of empathy and understanding, reaching across cultural boundaries that in our nation’s history have so often been vigorously defended and encouraged. By celebrating Guadalupe, we are also embracing what she calls out attention to: God’s special care and concern for the poor and forgotten.
Today, in other words, is both an act of resistance and of affirmation: resistance to arrogance, to division, to animosity, and to prejudice; and affirmation of community, of common values, of truth, and of compassion. By embracing a tradition that is not necessarily our own, but one which is of immense importance to many of our neighbors in the community, we are making a statement. We are one, with one another, in and through Mary, and her son Jesus Christ.
You may know that over in the Los Griegos neighborhood where I live, the local Catholic parish is dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Outside the church, on the far side of the parking lot, there is small shrine that includes a statue of Juan Diego, holding the cloak on which her image was miraculously imprinted.
I am struck, when I take a walk over that way with my dog Ellie, how often someone has stopped by the shrine to pray. Indeed the shrine is always filled with lighted candles, representing the particular intention of some previous visitor.
If no one is there, I sometimes stop to spend a few minutes reading the written prayers that are left behind in a spiral notebook. One reads there of families caught in a web of abusive relationships, of people struggling with addictions of one sort or another, of terrible illnesses and broken hearts. And of course there are also prayers of thanksgiving: for the birth of a child, for the safe return of a soldier from war, or for a college degree proudly earned.
I hear in those prayers an evocative echo of what Mary told Juan Diego early that morning back in 1531, when she expressed her desire to give to all people “my love, my compassion, my help, and my protection, because I am your merciful mother and the mother of all nations.” Whatever you may yourself make of the Guadalupe story, perhaps you can hear in it that it is at the very least entirely consonant with that radical, subversive loyalty to all those in need that Mary first expressed in her Magnificat. It is in her spirit, and with a sense of awe and respect for her witness, that we honor her and our neighbors today as we together sing, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016