A sermon for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
December 12, 2018
Trinity Episcopal Church Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
What does it take to convince us that God loves us—that we matter and are important—and that God wants to have a relationship with us? This was a burning question at the very beginning of the Jesus Movement. In the simplest form, the answer was the theology of the “incarnation.” Far more than saying that God “took on flesh,” the message of those early communities of faith was that in Jesus, God had become totally one with us—truly, fully, and completely God—truly, fully and completely human. St. Paul, for instance, wrote that Jesus was like us in all things, but sin.
Imagine a loving Creator who not only made us in their own image and likeness, but who, then, became one of us. A God who knew from personal experience all the beauty and pain of the human experience. A God who knew the reality of love and sorrow, of joy and suffering—of loss and death and sorrow. A God who, through, the Resurrection restored hope and who promised health and well-being—both in the here and now—but also in a new life after this one comes to an end.
But how to present that message in such a way that it would be intelligible—that it would make sense—that it would be compelling and attractive? The Gospel According to Saint Luke chose to introduce the good news with the story of Jesus’ infancy. This touching story was full of amazing Jewish figures—Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist. With angels and shepherds thrown in for good measure. All of this would have made sense to a gentile audience which was struggling to understand what it meant to be grafted on to the tree of Israel.
The Gospel According to Saint John—writing to a Greek speaking, gentile audience, chose an even more audacious way to communicate the good news. In the prologue a familiar Greek philosophical concept was used—the Logos—the eternal divine presence of God. The word who was from the beginning, who was with God, and who was God. The very word through whom everything that was made came to have being. That word which did the most astonishing thing — “pitched a tent among us” and became one of us.
The danger, though, is that without even realizing that they are doing so, missionaries—those who bear the good news of the incarnation—more often than not make a horrible mistake. They confuse the Gospel with the culture of their origin and the many ways in which they have experienced the Gospel being lived out by a specific community of faith. The sad result is a cultural imperialism which exports both the seed of Christianity along with the soil from a specific time and place. That never works out well for either the evangelizer or the evangelized!
In reflecting on this, Pope Paul VI, of happy memory wrote a famous Encyclical—Evangeli Nuntiandi—“On spreading the good news.” He called for missionaries and evangelizers to practice “Inculturation.” The seed of Christian faith, he suggested, should be planted in the rich soil of each culture. Watered and warmed by the love of God, the seed will sprout and a plant will emerge which is nourished and shaped by that culture. It will have all the essential elements derived from the seed—but will be formed by the language, music, arts. food and the lived-reality of the soil in which it will be planted. It will be authentically and fully Christian—but will be expressed in new and exciting ways.
This is the message of Guadalupe. Those tender words which the Virgin Mary addressed to Juan Diego make this point clearly, powerfully, and unmistakably: “Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the fountain of your joy? Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in the cradle of my arms?”
A lovely compassionate and tender Mother appeared to that peasant, Juan Diego. A lady who spoke to him in his own language, who wore clothes that made sense to him, and who used familiar images which he understood. But even more importantly, a lady who looked like him-who could have been his own mother, his sister, or his daughter. Her brown skin proved that she was Aztec and her accent proved that she was a Nahuatl-speaker—like him.
What does this celebration say to us today—here and now? This was a real game-changer, a paradigm shift for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Suddenly they came to understand that this foreign God who had previously not made much sense to them was in fact their God too. They were important, valued and loved by God.
For them—and for the conquistadores, it had an even more shocking message—they were sisters and brothers-members of the same family! The Spanish would be forced to recognize that the native peoples of the Americas were not less than human, were not expendable and must be treated with love, dignity and respect. Or else, they could not claim to live authentic Christian lives.
We are not there yet! But from generation to generation we do make progress—even if slowly–towards justice, equality and healing. “God has made one family of all the peoples of the earth.” That is the good news which the Apparition at Tepayac reminds us today—and which it challenges us to make real, present and effective—here and now.