Our Lady of Guadalupe: A Sermon by Professor Emeritus John Kater

Our Lady of Guadalupe
Timothy Klinefelter, age 8, carries an icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe in All Saints Chapel.

I’m always glad when it’s time to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe; but it’s a celebration that always makes me a little nervous. At its worst, it can be a particularly unpleasant example of “supermarket Christianity,” where we simply pick and choose anything that happens to attract us, the more “exotic” the better, without thinking about what it means, to us or to the people whose sacred story it is. It can be a kind of neo-colonialism, or worse; stealing other peoples’ sacred stories or borrowing them without asking is probably worse than stealing their property or borrowing their car without asking.

That’s why tonight makes me a little nervous. But there are lots of reasons why I am glad to be part of this celebration…and maybe the most important is for the message it communicates to us, here in this our own context…although the setting of the characters in the story was nothing like the one most of us call home  

Juan Diego was a member of the Nahuatl people of Mexico in one of the darkest times for his people. They had been overwhelmed by their Spanish conquerors, their history and traditions distorted, their religion mocked, their treasure stolen, their identity challenged; and their conquerors had done everything they could to turn them into Spanish-speaking Christians. Christ was the victorious King of Kings whose counterpart sat on the Spanish throne on the other side of the world, and his virgin mother was a Spanish queen depicted in jeweled splendor who looked nothing like the women Juan Diego met every day. No people could have been more dispossessed than the Indian people of the Valley of Mexico in Juan Diego’s time. Their oppression was profound, and it was complete. 

And at just such a time, Juan Diego has a vision; and the woman he sees looks nothing like the statues of Christ’s mother he saw in church. This woman looked suspiciously like the mother goddess his people had revered, to whom they had turned for comfort and support…and yet, she was Christ’s mother. And most surprising of all, she spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl, which was the language of his own people. And as the legend unfolds, this mysterious figure does amazing things — roses appear in the middle of winter on a hilltop, her image is miraculously imposed on Juan Diego’s cape, and maybe most miraculously of all, the bishop comes to believe in Juan Diego and his vision. The figure he met on that December day in a place his people knew was holy became the symbol of survival, and hope; Our Lady of Guadalupe became the symbol that the Holy One knows who matters, who has value even when those in charge think otherwise.  And Juan Diego discovered that God speaks the language of those who need God most:  the ones whose value is denied, whose identity is under attack, who would seem to be hopeless and lost. 

Our Lady of Guadalupe became the champion of our neighbors, our brothers and sisters to the south who were once the people of this land where we live. She is the patron of Mexico, and even a Church that at first scoffed at the story has come to realize that the love people have for her cannot, and will not, be challenged. 

The descendants of Juan Diego and his people have endured centuries of struggle, and they still do. Their country was pillaged by their conquerors. A church that should have been on their side chose instead to support those conquerors and their descendants who owned most of the land and kept the mass of the people in conditions of  misery. The struggle for freedom, for a sense of identity and self-worth has been a struggle of centuries. But always, in times of suffering and in times of struggle, the Virgin of Guadalupe has been the sign that God was still with them. And in our own time, when the descendants of all the Juan Diegos have made their way north in search of life instead of death, the Virgin has gone with them — only now she speaks Spanish. When Cesar Chavez led migrant workers in the fields of California to demand a better life, the Virgin of Guadalupe was heir patron, because she still remains the sign that whatever the forces of oppression and death may say, nevertheless — Emmanuel. God with us. 

I don’t suppose there is a more powerful image for the Advent season than the figure of the mother of Christ who is also the patron, the friend, the advocate, the supporter of a people who continue to be mistreated, not least by political demagogues. It’s the message of the Magnificat:  God has shown strength with his arm, scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. That’s what happens when God comes to be with the people who need God most:  They are vindicated.  The lies that they heard to “keep them in their place” are revealed for what they are — lies. 

We are walking through a time when the shadow of death seems to be particularly strong  — shadows of fear, shadows of hate, shadows of discrimination and intolerance are all around us.  But Emmanuel — God is with us. Remembering and honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe is a way to stand with all those who are suffering tonight as Juan Diego suffered nearly five centuries ago. It is a way to stand with our neighbors from the south who are being vilified for political gain even as they flee for their lives. It is a way to stand with those in our own place and time whose religion is demonized or mocked. It is a way to stand with people whose lives are considered not to matter. It is a way to stand with people whose lives have become a pilgrimage towards safety in the face of awful violence. It is a way to stand with those, whoever they are, who wonder where is God when they need God. It is a way to remember God’s own priorities, never more obvious than in the story of Jesus’ own birth as homeless, an outcast, a member of a despised minority and a scorned religion, and as Matthew would have it, a refugee. 

Advent is a time of Emmanuel — God coming to be with us. Maybe it’s people like Juan Diego who get to see how true that is:  roses bloom in the mountains in December, and hope is born, because God turns out to speak Nahuatl, and Spanish, and Arabic, and those who tell us the truth about God turn out to look like those who need it most.

A sermon preached at All Saints Chapel on December 17, 2015