Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday Dec. 13, Advent 2/ Fiesta de Guadalupe
Sermon: Christopher McLaren
Text: Traditional Story of Juan Diego 1531 Mexico City
Title: Like Roses in December is God’s Surprising Love
Roses in December. I have always loved the story of La Virgen de Guadalupe, with its captivating mystery, the music of birds, the fragrance of flowers, the brown-skinned Lady, and the voice of the poor being heard in the halls of power. Our home has a nicho dedicated to Guadalupe. Each day as drive the children to school I pass the image of Guadalupe; painted on walls, at the old church on Griegos, on the side of our parish hall. My day is surrounded by this beautiful image of the Protectress of the Americas but I realized that I have never really understood or embraced Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe for myself? I delighted in the celebration of Guadalupe last December as mí Hermano Daniel was ordained a priest in this church. As a boy I grew up in charismatic pentecostal land a decidedly anti-marian environment. You may be saying, “Christopher you’ve come a long way babym,” but there is still more to go. I’m sure my grandparents are turning over in their foursquare protestant graves at the mere thought of embracing La Virgen de Guadalupe.
One cannot understand the power of this Lady without understanding the history of Mexico. It is not an easy history lesson. Cortez landed in Mexico on Good Friday 1519. At first the Aztec people mistook Cortez and the Spaniards for gods, remembering that the great priest Quetzalcoatl had promised to return to renew their way of life centered on human dignity, simplicity, and prayer. The tradition was that Quetzalcoatl was a large man with blue eyes and blond hair who eerily fit the description of Cortez.
While the Aztec ruler Moctezuma was convinced that Cortez was a god all that changed after the massacre at Tóxcatl (Toshcatl). This festivity was the principle feast of the Aztecs. It was not only very similar in content to our own Paschal mystery, but also it was actually celebrated with great solemnity a few days after the Christian celebration of Holy Week.
At the celebration, masses of people were gathered in the main temple. Pedro de Alvarado, the captain in charge during the temporary absence of Cortez, ordered the entrances sealed by soldiers and then ordered the soldiers into the temple to kill warriors and captains of the people. The killing was horrific. Almost no one in the Temple that day survived. The final defeat of the Mexican people came after a long and difficult battle at Tlatelolco which lasted from May until August, 13 1521. It marked the end of a civilization. More than 240,000 warriors were dead and many others had died from starvation and disease.
As one post-conquest canticle expresses it:
Please let us die, let us disappear, for our gods have died!
It is difficult for us today to truly comprehend the trauma of this defeat. Only when we go through a personal experience in which every single person or thing in which we had placed our hope and security has disappeared and we feel totally alone, rejected and without possibility of any aid might we be able to begin to comprehend the Mexican experience of the conquest by Spain.
It was a painful crucifixion. Their world had vanished. Their greatest capital city and indeed the most beautiful and well organized, had fallen. They continued to live but in effect they were dead. Many indigenous were forced to abandon their villages often being reduced to slavery (Elizando, p.59).
It is in this apocalyptic situation with these portents in the sky that the little brown-skinned Mary appears to Juan Diego a simple indigenous man. On December 9, 10 years after the conquest of what is now Mexico City, Juan Diego was walking across a hill called Tepeyac on his way to catechism at a local church. As he walked he heard the beautiful singing of birds and then a beautiful dark-skinned Aztec woman appeared and spoke to him in his native language of Nahuatl.
The woman told Juan to go to the bishop and tell him, “You are to build me a church on this hill.” Juan must have been surprised, because the hill she meant was a holy place for the Aztec people, not for the Spanish. But Juan when to the bishop and said everything just as the woman had instructed him.
The bishop listened to the humble Indian and then told him, “No there will be no church on that hill.” Perhaps he also knew that the hill was an Aztec holy place.
Again, Juan saw the Aztec woman. He asked, “Who are you?” She answered, “I am Mary, the Mother of God.” And she told him to return to the bishop.
Juan went again to the bishop. He was persistent and the bishop listened again. Juan recounted all that the dark mother had said. The bishop wondered who Juan Diego was. He was only a humble farmer, a man of little learning and no power. He was an Aztec. Why should the bishop believe him?
Juan left the bishop discouraged. He needed a sign to prove that the Aztec lady had truly appeared to him. Several days passed since he first saw the woman. He was worried about his uncle who was sick and went to find a priest. On his way the woman appeared to him again. This time she told Juan to go up on the hill and gather flowers even though it was winter and to take them to the bishop as a sign of her presence.
Juan found roses, heavy with blossoms a sign of new life and hope for the Aztec people. Roses in December! Who could imagine such a thing? Mary told Juan to gather the flowers in his tilma (cloak) and take them to the bishop. Juan full of wonder ran to the bishop with his fragrant surprise.
The bishop was probably irritated to see Juan again. How many times did this stubborn Indian have to be told no? But the bishop’s irritation turned to amazement when Juan opened his tilma to show the flowers. As soon as the Bishop and all those with him saw the flowers they were amazed but there was something even more wonderful than roses in December, there on the fabric of Juan’s cloak was the image of the dark Aztec woman, The Mother of God who had appeared to Juan on the holy mountain and sent him to the bishop.
Shortly after a chapel was built on the site and the image placed there. Pilgrimages began immediately. Since that time several new edifices have been built to accommodate the nearly 10 million pilgrims that journey to the Shrine each year.
The evidenced suggests that the early Church was bitterly opposed to the Guadalupe happening. Yet the devotion spread like wildfire and brought about millions of conversions within a few years. As one writer puts it, “almost immediately the Mexican people came to life – the pilgrimages, dances and festivals began again and continue to this day. The devotion is not dying; on the contrary, it continues to spread, even in the major cities of the United States. ”
There is so much to learn about Guadalupe, so much to understand about this woman whose message of hope breathed life into a defeated and suffering people. The Mexican American theologian Virgilio Elizondo, believes that the origin of devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe involved resistance on the part of the native conquered people not only to the European invaders but also to the all-male God in whose name they conquered. In the mist of their resistance the poor, vanquished people of Mexico, enslaved and abused by their new rulers became the gracious recipients of a major disclosure in the development of the Christian understanding of God, namely that the mystery of God embraces both male and female identities.
This disclosure to Juan Diego through the song of the birds, the fragrance of flowers and the Queen of Heaven deigning to speak to one so lowly is of significance not just for the wounded people of Mexico but for the whole Church. Guadalupe helps to liberate everyone from a restrictive, masculinized view of God.
Interestingly several aspects of the Aztec religion serve to illuminate this important revelation. First, the place of the original 16th century apparition was the sacred site of an ancient temple dedicated to, the Indian virgin mother of the gods. The flowers and music of the vision were part of her temple worship. Now on the very site where the feminine aspect of the one, all powerful, creative spirit had previously been venerated a new beginning was emerging. The dark skin of La Morenita little dark-one, the language she spoke, the colors she was wearing and the celestial symbols surrounding her were all reminiscent of the goddess of the defeated people. Yet it was not the Aztec goddess it was Mary the mother of the Christian God who was speaking to Juan Diego and through him to all people. Guadalupe wears a black maternity band which means she is with child and offers this child as gift for a new world, a new beginning, a new people. The fertile soil of this cross-cultural encounter is not difficult to see. The figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe combined the Indian female expression of God which western Christianity had tried to wipeout as erroneous with the Spanish male expression of God, which the Indians had found incomprehensible, since everything that is perfect in the Nahuatl world-view has both a male and female component.
In essence Guadalupe combines in some perfect way the male-centered and patriarchal Christianity with the female Mother of God which allows the true face and heart of Christianity to shine forth: compassion, understanding, tenderness, reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing.
So at the same time while the imperial powers of Spain full of their religious triumphalism are oppressing the indigenous peoples whom they do not understand and so consider pagans, on the other side this surprising revelatory event is giving birth to a new reality, a new humanity, a new church, a new way for those who had lost everything. It is at once traditional and new. Without this revelatory event it is hard to imagine what might have become of this defeated people, but God’s bird-song and flowers breakthrough, compassion, understanding and loving care are demonstrated in the dark-skinned lady that is one of them, and loves them.
From Guadalupe we have learned much and have much to learn. As we celebrate the recent election of two, yes two women bishops, in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles one openly lesbian, we see that we are slowly making progress in embracing the feminine in our own spiritual life, seeing and embracing the image of Christ in our female leaders like our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Mother’s know the pain of conquest, of growth, and of change. Mothers are always ready and willing to stand by and be with their children in their days of triumph or defeat, and they are also there in their moments of development and conversion. Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to encourage the poor, the disinherited, and the powerless, the outcast in their struggles toward the freedom of the children of God. I’m sure that she is hovering over the expanding work of the food pantry, blessing the ministry of the Albuquerque Opportunity Center, smiling with compassion on the breakfast at St. Martin’s. She is the compassionate Mother who watches over her smallest children and brings them self-dignity, self-confidence, and self-direction.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is there not only for the Mexican people but for us as well, as the Protectress of the Americas, of which we are a part. She is among us to remind us of God’s love for the poor, the discouraged, the marginalized, the stranger, the depressed, the lonely, the forgotten. And when that person, for one reason or anther is us, when we are depressed or lonely or forgotten, she is ready to take us to her loving heart and carry us to her beloved Son who has and will continue to love us to the end. Like roses in December is God’s surprising love.
I am deeply endebted to the writing of Mexican American theologian Virgilio P. Elizondo on Guadalupe for a new and deeper understanding of this remarkable Lady of Guadalupe. His book La Morenita: Evangelizer of the Americas was my essential guide to embracing La Morenita.