12 December 2014

Our Lady of Guadalupe: God is the One who Lifts up the Lowly

Fifty years ago at Vatican II the messiest, most passionate, and often "dirtiest" fighting to occur during the council took place during discussions of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Out of nearly 2400 bishops the fight was divided almost exactly evenly between two factions, those nicknamed the maximalists and those nicknamed the minimalists. Both factions were concerned with honoring the greatness of Mary in our faith but their strategies in this were very different from one another. The maximalists wanted the council to declare Mary Mediatrix of all Graces and to proclaim this as a new dogma in the Church --- never mind that the thrust of the Council was not toward the definition of new dogmas. They wanted the council to write a separate document on Mary, one which effectively made her superior to the Church.

The minimalists also wanted to honor Mary, but they wanted to do so by speaking of her within the document on the Church. They desired a more Scriptural approach to the person and place of Mary which honored the dogmatic truth that Christ is the One unique Mediator between God and mankind. The Church would be spoken of as Mother and Virgin, for instance, and Mary would be seen as a type of the Church.

The minimalist position won the day (had only 20 Bishops voted differently it would have been another matter) and so, in Lumen Gentium after the Church Fathers wrote about the Mystery of the Church, Church as People of God, the hierarchical nature of the Church, the Laity, the universal call to holiness, Religious, and the Church as a Pilgrim people, they wrote eloquently about Our Lady in chapter VIII. Mary is highly honored in this Constitution --- as it says in today's responsorial psalm, she is, after all, "the highest honor of our race", but for this very reason the Church Fathers spoke of her clearly as  within the Church, within the Communion of Saints, within the Pilgrim People of God, not as a rival to Christ or part of the Godhead, but as one who serves God in Christ as a model of faithfulness.

It is always difficult, I think, to believe and honor the Christmas truth we are preparing during Advent to celebrate, namely, that our God is most fully revealed to us in the ordinary things of life. We are a Sacramental faith rooted in the God who, for instance, comes to us himself in bread and wine, cleanses and recreates us entirely with water,  and strengthens and heals us with oil. Especially at this time of the liturgical year we are challenged to remember and celebrate the God who turns a human face to us, who comes to us in weakness, lowliness and even a kind of dependence on the "yes" we are invited to say, the One who is made most fully real and exhaustively known in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. Advent is a time when we prepare ourselves to see the very face of God in the poor, the broken, the helpless, and those without status of any kind. After all, that is what the Christmas Feast of the Nativity is all about.

I think this is one of the lessons today's Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe teaches most vividly. We all know the more superficial story. Briefly, in 1531 Juan Diego, an Indian Christian encountered a beautiful Lady on the hill of Tepeyac; she told him to ask the Bishop to build a church there. The Bishop refused and required a sign of the authenticity of Juan Diego's vision. Diego returned home to find his uncle dying. He set out again to fetch a doctor and avoided the hill where he had first met the woman and went around it instead --- he did not want to be distracted from his mission! But the Lady came down to him, heard his story about his uncle, reassured him his uncle would be well, and told him then to go to the top of the hill and pick the flowers he found there. Diego did so, gathered them in his tilma or mantle, and went again to the Bishop. Juan poured out his story to him and he also poured the flowers out onto the floor. Only then did he and the Bishop see a miraculous image of the Lady of Tepeyac hill there on the tilma itself.

But there was a deeper story. Remember that Juan Diego's people were an essen-tially subjugated people. The faith they were forced to adopt by missionaries was geared toward the salvation of souls but not to what we would recognize as the redemption of persons or the conversion and transformation of oppressive structures and institutions. It was more a faith enforced by fear than love, one whose whose central figure was a man crucified because an infinitely offended God purportedly willed it in payment for our sins. Meanwhile the symbols of that faith, its central figures, leaders and saints, were visibly European; they spoke and were worshipped in European languages, were dressed in European clothes, were portrayed with European features, etc. At best it was hard to relate to; it's loving God was apparently contradictory and remote. At worst it was incomprehensible and dehumanizing. Moreover, with the "evangelizers" who had forcibly deprived the Indians of their own gods and religion came diseases the Indians had never experienced. They were dying of plagues formerly unknown to them, working as slaves for the institutional and patriarchal  Church, and had been deprived of the human dignity they had formerly known.

It was into this situation that Mary directly entered when she appeared on Tepeyak hill, the center of the indigenous peoples' worship of the goddess Tonantzin, the "goddess of sustenance". The image of the Lady was remarkable in so many ways. The fact of it, of course, was a marvel (as were the healing of Diego's uncle, the December roses Diego picked and poured out onto the Bishop's floor or the creation and persistence of her image on Diego's tilma), but even more so was the fact that she had the face of a mixed race (Indian or Mestiza) woman, spoke in Diego's own language, was pregnant, and was dressed in native dress. And here was the greatest miracle associated with OL of Guadalupe: in every way through this appearance the grace of God gave dignity to the Indian people. They were no longer third or fourth class people but persons who could truly believe they genuinely imaged the Christian God. The appearance was the beginning of a new Church in the Americas, no longer a merely European Church, but one where Mary's Magnificat was re-enacted so that ALL were called to truly image God and proclaim the Gospel. One commentator wrote that, [[Juan Diego and millions after him are transformed from crushed, self-defacing and silenced persons into confident, self-assured and joyful messengers and artisans of God's plan for America.]] (Virgilio Elizondo, Guadalupe and the New Evangelization)

Here too then, in the truly unexpected and even unacceptable place, our God turns a human face to those seeking him. He comes to us in weakness and lowliness as one of the truly marginalized. In the process we see clearly once again the God of Jesus Christ who scatters the proud in their conceit, unseats the mighty from their positions of power, and lifts up the lowly. During this season of Advent Our Lady of Guadalupe calls us especially to be watchful. God is working to do this new and powerful thing among us --- just as he did in the 1st Century, just as he did in the 16th, just as he always does when we give him our own fiat.