"La Virgen de Guadalupe"
In last week’s blog post we examined a biblical framework for gender and highlighted the fact that the Bible features important accounts of powerful and empowered women. I’d like to continue my discussion of gender this week by talking about the most famous woman of the Bible: Jesus’ mom, the Virgin Mary. Like generations of Christians before me, I call her blessed. She is the mother of my Lord, how could I do any less. Together with the physician and gospel writer Luke, I take to heart the truth expressed in the following famous scripture known as the Magnificat: From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me--
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
As a follower of Christ whose family comes from Mexico, I especially take to heart verses 52-53: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” As will be discussed in a later blog post, the Spanish maligned the name of Christ by using the Conquest of Mexico as an excuse to pillage and murder millions of people. Within the first hundred years of the Spanish conquest, more than 20 million indigenous people died in central Mexico—90% of the total indigenous population in that area. How could the indigenous peoples of Mexico believe in the God of the Spaniards after the Spaniards had done such horrible things?
This is where the Virgin Mary brings me hope. Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary declares emphatically in these verses that God is upset with arrogant rulers, indeed that He takes them down from their thrones of authority. She states clearly that God is angered by economic injustice and when rich people have lots of food and poor people have none. But she doesn’t stop there. She also speaks in the affirmative and declares that God will lift up the humble and fill the hungry with good things. As we used to say in my Spanish-language Latino church growing up, “Amen.”
In my view, these biblical truths are embodied by the famous story of the Virgin of Guadalupe. For Catholic and Orthodox readers of this blog, this story presents no theological conflict. For Protestants, and especially Mexican Protestants like myself, simply addressing this topic can cause deep theological wrestling and defensiveness. I understand that I’m touching upon a deeply controversial topic, but I think that its impossible for me, as a Mexican and Latino, to write a blog about faith and justice and to ignore a discussion of “La Virgen.”
Without compromising any of their theological convictions, I hope that my fellow Protestants might consider a new perspective on the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe—one that I’ve come to after a number of years of reflection: the account of the Virgin of Guadalupe reminds me that God cares about the poor of Mexico and that He did not turn a blind eye to the Spanish Conquest. The Virgin of Guadalupe is a powerful symbol of the fact that God loves the indigenous people of Mexico and will one day bring them justice. In light of that preface, here’s the story…
According to tradition, the Virgin Mary, clothed in the appearance of a humble, indigenous Mexican woman, appeared to Juan Diego on December 9, 1531 (Just 10 years after the capture of Mexico City). What follows is an account of the Virgin’s appearance which was originally written in Nahuatl (the Aztec language) in 1545. It was composed by Don Antonio Valeriano, an indigenous noble with blood ties to the famous Emperor Moctezuma. Titled “Nican Mopohua,” it is considered a masterpiece of the Aztec language: (citation http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/guadalupe.html):
At the beginning of December, a poor Indian named Juan Diego left his house one Saturday morning to attend divine service. On the way, as he passed the hill of Tepeyacac ("Hill of the Nose," in Nahuatl), he was startled by a song coming from the summit. The sweet, tender singing surpassed the trilling of the most exquisite birds. Juan Diego stopped, entranced, and mused, "Is it my luck to be worthy to hear such music? Is it a dream perhaps? Did I get up from my bed? Where am I? In Paradise, in heaven perhaps? I don't know."
The singing ceased and a heavenly sweet voice called him from the hill-top, "Juan, my little one, Juan Diego." Filled with joy, Juan Diego was not at all frightened, but climbed the hill in search of the mysterious voice.
When he reached the top, he saw a lady who bade him approach. It was a wonderful lady of superhuman beauty. Her raiment shone like the sun; the rock on which she set her foot seemed to be hewn from precious stones and the ground red like the rainbow. The grass, the trees and the bushes were like emeralds; the foliage, fine turquoise; and the branches flashed like gold…”
Astonished by the appearance of the Virgin, Juan Diego listened as she gave him special orders:
“I wish a shrine to be built here to show my love to you. I am your merciful mother, thine, and all the dwellers of this earth. To bring to pass what I bid thee, go thou and speak to the bishop of Mexico and say I sent thee to make manifest to him my will…”
Juan Diego was commanded to request from the Spanish bishop of Mexico that a special church be built which would represent God and the Virgin’s love for the indigenous population of Mexico. Juan Diego listened to the Virgin and went several times to speak with the Bishop but he would not believe. Instead, the Bishop demanded a special sign from heaven. Juan Diego also continued to experience apparitions of the Virgin Mary. On one of these occasions it is reported that she helped him to gather beautiful flowers in his cloak. Juan Diego went to see the Bishop one last time and a miracle took place:
“In the bishop's palace he had a long time to wait. The servants, suspecting from his attitude that he was hiding something in his arms, began to bait him. Seeing his refusal to show them what he was carrying, they began to tug at his cloak, in spite of the tearful petitions the poor Indian put up. Terrified the flowers would fall to the floor, he lifted a corner of his cloak to placate his tormentors. But a miracle! the blooms, fresh and fragrant before, to the gaze of the servants seemed as if stuck to Juan Diego's cloak… The Lord Bishop commanded at once that he should be brought before him. Juan Diego prostrated himself before him and said:
"Sir, I have done thy command. I went and told the Lady of Heaven thou wast asking for a sign that thou mightest believe me." The Indian related what the Holy Mother of God had told him and described the glory in which she had lately appeared to him. Then he unfolded his white cloak and, as the lovely blooms were strewn on the floor, the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe suddenly appeared on the cloth just as it is to be seen today, painted by a divine hand on the cape of Juan Diego.”
Through this story I see that God “broke through” the misrepresentation of the Conquest to the indigenous people of Mexico and revealed to them, that, despite the terrible misrepresentation which was occurring, He loved them. He broke through with Jesus’ mom. Regardless of your perspective on the historicity of the Virgin of Guadalupe story, I hope we can agree on one point: the Virgin is a powerful symbol of the fact that God loves the poor of Mexico and he has not overlooked the injustices that they have suffered for the past 500 years.
To conclude the account, the church was built and it is reported that more than 10 million indigenous people came to faith in Christ. Pope John Paul II called Juan Diego the greatest evangelist of all time! You can still visit the church and see Juan Diego’s white cloak with the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe “painted by a divine hand.” And, miraculously, the image has not faded.
To summarize our last two blog posts, there is no room in a biblical framework for sexism or oppressive patriarchy. Men are no better than women, and women are no better than men. Instead, men and women are uniquely beautiful in a complementary fashion. They also share the divine image in many important ways as well. Sadly, men have twisted and dismissed these truths for millennia. The result has been sexism and inequality between the sexes which continues on both an individual and structural level to the present day in the United States, Latin America, and wherever you have men.
Thankful for La Virgin,
Robert Chao Romero