The Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Today we join with millions throughout the Americas who honor Our Lady of Guadalupe. You know her - she appears everywhere: on cars, store signs, decals, and tattoos. Our image of her is on the outside wall of our parish hall, made of tile in Puebla, Mexico.
You probably know the basics of her story. Only 10 years after the conquest of the Aztecs, she appeared miraculously to a native convert whose Christian name was Juan Diego. She sent him to tell the bishop that a temple should be built in her honor. The bishop didn’t believe Juan Diego until he returned with a cloak full of roses - impossible because it was December - and an image of the Virgin imprinted on Juan’s cloak.
Skeptics question this story, of course. They say the Spanish made it up in order to further their conquest, by appropriating an Aztec goddess and making her Catholic. Who knows, maybe they’re right. But to the millions who have been devoted to her for these 480 years, she has come to mean far more than conquest.
For some, she is the feminine face of God, offering motherly divine love. It is said that she told Juan Diego that her temple would be a place where she would offer all [her] compassion, help and protection to the people. At times this motherly love has otherwise been difficult to find in a church that has been male-dominated, demanding, even cruel. The kindness and mercy that Our Lady of Guadalupe brought were in short supply, and so God - or the people - had to create her.
To a lesser degree, you could say the same about our church today. We’re still fairly male-dominated. That’s why we need new rites such as Enriching our Worship, with phrases like these:
You laid the foundations of the world and enclosed the sea when it burst out from the womb; You brought forth all creatures of the earth and gave breath to humankind.
As a mother cares for her children, you would not forget us. Time and again you called us to live in the fullness of your love.
For others, the Virgin of Guadalupe is a sign that miracles do happen, and they can happen for us, too. She appeared miraculously. She healed Juan Diego’s father. Inexplicably, the image on the cloak has not deteriorated in nearly 5 centuries, despite extreme changes in temperature and humidity, candle smoke, the kisses and touches of thousands of devotees, and a bomb thrown at it by an anarchist. Some inspectors claim that in her eyes, one can see the inverted image of Juan Diego, as if in a camera lens.
I know that there’s a lot of wacky stuff out there about miracles: television quacks who close their eyes, extend their hands, and claim to be healing someone of lung cancer who is watching the show as he sits alone in a hotel room in Des Moines.
But I also know that perfectly sane human beings can experience visions and miracles. Weird stuff does happen. Anything is possible if respected physicists can talk about the possibility of the world we live in being a projected hologram of things existing on the spherical skin of a distant black hole...(I’m not making this up!)
We are rationalist fools if we don’t recognize that the world is a mystical place. So who’s to say that a young Jewish woman from 1st-century Israel couldn’t appear in a parallel time and place? And who’s to say that something supernatural couldn’t appear to help you in your life?
But there is another meaning to the Virgin of Guadalupe, perhaps the most radical one of all. She came as a mestizo, a brown-skinned, mixed-race person. She appeared to a poor Aztec and spoke his language, Nahuatl.
She imprinted her image on a rough-woven cloak made from cactus. In the Virgin of Guadalupe, God was identifying with the poor.
More significantly, she didn’t appear to the Spanish bishop in his opulent residence. By sending a campesino with the roses, she was getting in the face of the bishop. Hey, Prince of the Church! You think my son was kidding when he said that the last would be first and the first - namely you - would be last? Blessed are the poor, you schmuck!
And so the Virgin of Guadalupe became the property of the people. For in her, God had become one of them. The skeptical bishop couldn’t suppress her, and neither could the Vatican, once they got wind of a movement that had taken on a life of its own. She continues to be fiercely held by the people, and they don’t really care whether some worry that they are idolatrous. They know she is Emmanuel, “God with us.”
This is the message that the liberation theologians so controversially taught in the 1970’s: God’s preferential option for the poor. Now this doesn’t mean that God loves poor people more than the rich, only that the most vulnerable hold a special place in the heart of God.
They hold a special place in the hearts of those who love God, too. After all, we are God’s children, made in God’s image. And so if we are in touch with our Creator, we will naturally care, as God does, for those who are mentally ill, for children and the frail elderly, for the homeless and addicted, for the depressed and lonely, for those without access to medical care or education. We are made to be like the Virgin of Guadalupe, offering our compassion, help and protection to the people.
If we have no soft spot in our heart for the most vulnerable, if we do nothing to help them in their weakness, we do not have within us the Spirit of the One who does. And it may be time to get reconnected with that Spirit.
One good way to do that is to reconnect with our own poverty, our own vulnerability. It was the gospel of Matthew that changed Luke’s Blessed are the poor to Blessed are the poor in spirit, and those two words brought in all of us. As the Buddha said, Life is suffering. B.B. King put it in his own way: Everybody’s had the blues.
You may have an persistent medical condition or feel stuck in a deadening job. You may struggle with alcohol, depression, or an unhappy relationship with your partner or child. You may feel a creeping angst now and then, wondering what’s the point. Whatever it is, we all have some kind of poverty of spirit.
We can make the mistake of seeing our vulnerability as the enemy, something to be gotten rid of, fixed, or transcended. Why, I’d be happy if only...
But what if that is one of the primary places where God tends to appear? In your poverty? We certainly meet God in gratitude and satisfaction, but we sometimes overlook how accessible God can be when we are empty. It is in these times that dependence upon God can become a matter of survival - when we know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.
In this place we surrender; we give up on the exhausting effort to make ourselves full and rich. We humbly accept our emptiness. Not wishing or pleading anymore for something particular to happen - because we’ve already asked too many times, and it hasn’t - we nevertheless remain open, trusting. Not expecting a specific outcome, we dare to remain expectant. Something will shift. Something or someone will come. We say to ourselves I don’t have to do this alone. And we don’t.
The Virgin of Guadalupe came to the Aztecs in their defeat. And she comes to us in our defeat, our poverty of spirit, offering to us, as she did in 1531 to all the Americas, God’s compassion, help, and protection.
This is the spirit of Advent. For in this season that moves inevitably towards the darkness of the solstice, we watch for the coming of the light. And God’s light appears in the darkness, not instead of it. It will appear in our poverty of spirit, if we will but pray, watch, and wait.