Thursday, December 11, 2008

Holy Stories of Indigenous Peoples: Telling Truth Beyond Control of the Big Men on Top

Whispers in the Loggia had a thought-provoking meditation Tuesday about the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast day is tomorrow. As Rocco Palmo notes, the story has strong resonance now, in the midst of our current economic crisis.

As with so many holy stories, this one has gotten covered in layers of simpering piety that divert us from the central thread of the narrative. This is a story about holy intrusion into the life of an ordinary man, the lowest of the low in the society of his day. The story tells what happened when a simple indigenous Mexican man, Cuauhtlatoatzin, encountered the Virgin Mary on a hilltop one day near Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.

Cuauhtlatoatzin heard birds singing on Tepeyac hill and, amidst the bird calls, his name. He climbed Tepeyac to see what this was about and saw there a Mexican girl surrounded by light, a dark-skinned girl of the people, rather than one of the conquistadors from Spain who had claimed his land. She spoke to him in his native language, Nahuatl, calling him Xocoyte, “little son.” He responded courteously, calling her “Xocoyata,” his least daughter.

The dark-skinned girl made a request of him. He was to go the bishop of Mexico, a Spaniard, and tell him that the girl wanted a “teocalli,” a holy house, built on Tepeyac. And so Cuauhtlatoatzin went to the bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, repeatedly. And was repeatedly turned away.

How, the bishop wondered, could the Virgin Mary appear to a Mexican peasant and not to a Spanish bishop or a priest, with centuries of the True Faith in his blood? The bishop asked for a sign. And for the sign, the girl produced roses from the bishop’s native land of Castile, wrapped them in her cloak, and gave this to Cuauhtlatoatzin to bring to the Spaniard. When Cuauhtlatoatzin shook out the roses, an image of the girl was imprinted on her cloak. Roses in December.

The bishop believed. The shrine of Guadalupe was built, becoming the center of Mexican Catholicism, a place to which the wretched of the earth can go with as much hope of being received and heard as can the fair-skinned and haughty, the wealthy and the wise.

These are the bare bones of the story, bones we don’t often see under the florid ornamentation that now covers their telling. Cuauhtlatoatzin now appears under the Spanish name St. Juan Diego. The dark-skinned girl is now a princess. The point of the story, as people tell it today, is to talk about the Virgin Mary and her miracles—not about God’s choice to enter this world in solidarity with the outcast, the despised, the conquered, the dark and dirty: the workers, those carriers of flowers Diego Rivera loved to depict, whose backs are stooped with the burdens they carry to prettify the lives of us, the privileged of the world. While they have no flowers for themselves. Except the roses in the cloak of the Aztec maiden. Roses in December.

I think that Rocco Palmo is right. This is a story for our time, once we probe beyond the hagiographical layers that distort what the story wants to say to us. It is a story about where God lives today, in our world. It’s a story about the kind of God we should be expecting during this advent time, a homely God who comes to us in homely ways.

And it’s a story about who we might become, if we listened well to the gospels. It’s a story about rich nations that choose to share their wealth with the despised of the world, that open their doors to the huddled masses, that acknowledge the manifold gifts those pouring through the doors bring to us.

It’s a story about tables where bread is broken and shared, so that everyone has enough—a story about how bread decays when it is hoarded, and becomes insufficient even for those who have hoarded it in abundance. It is a story about the choice of God and the holy ones to appear to those we least expect to become the bearers of divine gifts and messages.

Who knows, perhaps even to us, if we learn to imagine the world differently . . . .