Monday, December 12, 2011

Guadalupe, the Magnificat, and Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Today's the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  As I explained in a posting about Guadalupe last year, this has long been a day with special significance for me, because my father died late on the Guadalupe feast day in 1969.  In addition, the themes of this particular Marian devotion--the indigenous face the Virgin Mary shows in her appearance on the hill of Tenochtitlan, her preferential love for the wretched of the earth, of whom she is one in the cult of Guadalupe: these appeal to me powerfully.

They appeal because they're so consistent with the Mary we meet in Luke's gospel, as she sings her song of joy when she and Elizabeth share with each other the news that both are unexpectedly with child.  That song is the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55).  And in doing a bit of research about the song online today, I'm surprised (but not surprised, either) to learn that Mary's hymn celebrating God's divine reversal of the order and polity of this world, and God's preferential love for the outcast and demeaned, frighten some Christians.

I gather this because, when I google the terms "Magnificat" and "liberation," I come across any number of websites, the large majority of them Catholic ones, claiming that to place Mary on the side of political or economic liberation is "artificial."  And that "activists" are "using" the Virgin Mary to score political points when they focus on her powerful hymn of reversal, while they ignore all the other things good Catholics should note about her: her womanly submissiveness, her silence, her willingness to support her son while remaining in the shadows as good women should, etc.

I gather that what's eminently frightening about Mary's hymn of reversal is precisely what it says: namely, that God seeks to lift up the lowly and cast the mighty down from their thrones, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.  These are unavoidably frightening words for any of us who might occupy thrones and have more than we need for our own sustenance--which is to say, for large numbers of us living in the developed sectors of the globe.

But the words are there, in all their stark simplicity.  And they come out of the mouth of the mother of Jesus, who shaped his spirituality.  Which in key respects mirrors the piety sketched in his mother's great hymn of divine reversal, something we can see clearly as he makes it his business throughout his ministry to seek out and eat with the outcasts of his society.  To bring them to tables from which they had previously been excluded.

And he begins his ministry in the same gospel in which Mary sings her Magnificat by identifying himself and his ministry with the inauguration of the Jubilee, in which the oppressed will be set free and good news proclaimed to the poor as the year of the Lord's favor is inaugurated (Luke 4: 16-19, citing Isaiah 61: 1).  Through his parables, through his actions (notably his table-fellowship with outcasts), and through his powerful story about the final judgment in Matthew's gospel (Matthew 25: 31-46), everything Jesus does and says reminds his followers that our union with God and fidelity to God's message are hinged on our willingness to feed the hungry, tend the sick, open our doors to strangers, visit prisoners, and clothe the naked.

Jesus's words and example are frightening, in what they demand of us.  There's no getting around these words, precisely because they've been vocalized: they've been spoken.  By both the savior and by his mother.

And that in itself bears attention, it seems to me, particularly on this feast day of a Mother who is one of the poor and who stands in solidarity with the poor.  Mary speaks in Luke's gospel.

And this is all the more noteworthy when one notes that the hymn she is singing depends largely on Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2: 1-10.  As do Mary's and her cousin Elizabeth's, Hannah's story turns on an unexpected pregnancy, for which she had longed and prayed because she was barren.

But Hannah dared not give voice to her longing and hope, since religious law of her time and place gave her husband the authority to nullify her words, if he overheard her prayer.  Women and their very words were the property of their husbands.  And so she prayed in silence for the gift of a child, and it was only when she was confident that the Lord had answered her prayer and she no longer feared having her words nullified by her husband that she dared to speak out.

And so the choice of the Mary who showed her face as one of the wretched of the earth, the poorest of the poor, on the hill of Tenochtitlan and who gave voice to her powerful hymn of divine reversal in the Magnificat to cite Hannah's song as she sings the Magnificat is not without significance.  In the Magnificat, Mary gives voice to every voiceless person who ever lived, and who seeks a place in a world in which the hungry never have enough to eat and the mighty rule and allocate everything.  And in which women belong to men and have no voices, thoughts, or prayers apart from male domination.

It is entirely understandable why many of us who claim Mary as our model and exemplar of faith should be horrified that such words have been spoken, and that they frame the life and ministry of Mary's son.  And for anyone who pays attention to what the story of Guadalupe signifies, that horror is magnified.

Because if any of these stories mean what they appear to mean, God may, quite simply, belong first to those we've tagged as them.  And not much to us at all, no matter how resplendent the thrones we occupy and how lavish the feast we share with others like us.

The graphic is artist Michael Walker's "Retablo de la Virgen Indigena."

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