Each year, on the 12th of December, people throughout the Americas rise early and make their way to church where they greet La Virgen de Guadalupe with songs and flowers and a retelling of her story. Each year they spend the day in celebration.
This year, I spent much of the day reflecting on her story, our story, and the crowds of people—black and white, South Africans and Afrikaners together—I’d been watching dancing and singing in the streets of South Africa as they celebrated the life and mourned the death of Nelson Mandela—the one they call Madiba.
I took a break. I went off in search of a Christmas tree. Each year we return to the same lot to get our Christmas tree. They have a nice selection of reasonably sized, reasonably priced, reasonably fresh trees. And every year I ask the Anglo who escorts me through the lot the same question. “Are you Swedish?” It’s a reasonable question to be asking. He looks like a Swede. He talks like a Swede. And, coming as I do from a part of the country where Swedes and Christmas seem to go hand-in-hand, I always hope he’s Swedish. Every year I ask, and every year he deflects my question.
Until Thursday, the Feast day of La Virgen. We were looking at a Blue Spruce he pulled out for me to inspect. Again I asked, “Are you Swedish?” This time he answered, “No. I’m South African.” How could I not have asked him about Mandela? So I did. His reply knocked me cold. “He was a terrible man. I hated him. I was one of four soldiers tracking him down. He should have been eliminated, but the world got in the way.”
“What,” I said to myself, “What am I hearing?” I wondered as I walked away to the other side of the lot, “Was it the world that got in the way or was it God—God dwelling in Apartheid South Africa?” I had to get away. I couldn’t stay with that question. I grabbed a tree—maybe one of the ugliest trees on that lot—and said, “I’ll take this one.”
As I was getting ready to drive off, the man who runs the lot came up to me. He put his weathered brown Juan Diego hand on my car door and held it open. He had a story to tell, and he wasn’t going to let me go until he told it.
The year before, one of his long-time customers came to the lot to get her tree. She drove an old white pick-up that was in mint-condition. As she was paying for the tree, he slipped her a note with his phone number on it and said, “If you ever decide to sell the truck, call me.” On Thursday, the Feast Day of La Virgen de Guadalupe, her husband returned to the lot to get his tree. As he was paying for the tree, he said to the owner of the lot, “My wife died last year. She left you something in her will—that old truck of hers.”
I have no idea why he told me that story. I like to think he told it as a counterpoint to the vitriol I’d just heard. A Guadalupano moment of healing and wholeness and new life. God dwelling in the here and now.
I don’t know the historicity of the Guadalupe we celebrate today. I don’t know if there ever was a Juan Diego who encountered a brown virgin on the Tepeyac Hill. I don’t know if, on that winter day almost five hundred years ago, the hill was covered with roses in bloom and the air filled with song. There’s no documentary evidence to support those claims. And yet there’s a truth to the story.
The story of a people defeated and a land conquered. The story of a people dying from foreign diseases. The story of a people whose very identity was quashed as their relationship with their gods was severed. The story of a people confused, fearful, facing change they couldn’t understand.
The story of a people visited by a brown virgin giving them comfort, giving them hope, calling on them to work together with their conquerors to build her a shrine where she could listen to their cries of woe and alleviate their sufferings.
I know the truth of that story. I’ve seen it at work in the power of her image—the image we see today. Whenever I see that image, I’m reminded of the day I walked in her wake. At the time, I didn’t really get what was going on. I was just taken up in the moment. Thousands and thousands of people crowded between the buildings lining Market Street in San Francisco. Chants of “Si! Se Puede!” echoing through the crowd. Helping my friend Eddie hold up his banner of Guadalupe. People waving from second story windows, pointing to the banner and smiling. Others coming up to the banner, kissing their fingers and then touching the image of Guadalupe. A crowd of people—brown and black and white—marching in her wake. There, standing out amidst all the signs and banners, the image of Guadalupe drawing people in, giving people life, giving people hope. Assuring a suffering people that a loving God is present with them, sharing their burdens, bringing them hope. God dwelling with them.
To a people returning from exile, to a people filled with memories of life in a foreign land and tales of the war and siege and capture that brought them to there, the prophet Zechariah offers a vision—a vision of God dwelling with them. Twice the prophet assures the people of Israel—both those returning from exile and those who had stayed behind—that God will dwell in the midst of them. That theme of God dwelling in the midst of God’s people and its variant—God’s people dwelling with God—is a theme that runs throughout the scriptures. A promise fueling the song Mary sings. A promise fundamental to life with God. And yet the very frequency with which that promise appears suggests that it’s a hard one for folks to grasp.
So often when things are tough, when things don’t turn out the way we hoped—times of confusion and fear—we forget that God dwells with us. We forget that the Spirit of God, as Paul puts it, working in us and through us can do far more that we ourselves can do. And yet as the prophet Isaiah assures a people living in darkness, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in the land of the shadow of death, on them the light has shined.” That’s a truth Nelson Mandela knew. That’s a truth the people dancing and singing and chanting Madiba knew from the center of their being. That’s a truth they have lived.
You and I, we—the part of the Body of Christ we call St. Michael’s—are living in a time of change and confusion and uncertainty. Things aren’t now as they have been—for us as individuals and for us as a community. We’re living in the bowl of a question mark and the sides of that bowl sometimes seem awfully steep. And yet there’s something to be said for resting in the bowl of a question mark. It gives us time to pause, to rest, to let God work in us and through us. For God is at work in us just as God was at work in South Africa at the height of apartheid—at work birthing a something new.
Whenever I find myself falling into the frantic mode, I return to a canticle from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer—a poem by Edward Carpenter. Please pray with me:
Let your mind be quiet, realising the beauty of the world,
and the immense, the boundless treasures that it holds in store.
All that you have within you, all that your heart desires,
all that your Nature so specially fits you for – that or the
counterpart of it waits embedded in the great Whole, for you.
It will surely come to you.
Yet equally surely not one moment before its appointed time
will it come. All your crying and fever and reaching out of
hands will make no difference.
Therefore do not begin that game at all.
Do not recklessly spill the waters of your mind
in this direction and in that,
lest you become like a spring lost and
dissipated in the desert.
But draw them together into a little compass, and hold them
still, so still;
And let them become clear, so clear –so limpid, so mirror-like;
at last the mountains and the sky shall glass themselves in
and the antelope shall descend to drink and to gaze at her
reflected image, and the lion to quench his thirst,
and Love himself shall come and bend over and catch his
own likeness in you.1
1Edward Carpenter, “The Lake of Beauty” in The New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, 157.