Today, December 12, Catholics around the world have celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, commemorating the Virgin Mary’s appearance to St. Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill outside present-day Mexico City in 1531. Since that time, when the young Juan managed to convince the church authorities to build a church in her honor, this particular image of Mary has come to assume a multiplicity of meanings. Known as the Patroness of the Americas, she is held sacred by the wealthy and the poor, by people of many cultural backgrounds, by United Statesian “respect life” Catholics who focus primarily on the rights of the unborn as well as “social justice” Catholics who are more focused on the undocumented. Chicana poet and literary theorist Gloria Anzaldua, whose 1987 book Borderlands involves a multifaceted meditation on the hybrid identities of people who exist on the margins, sees this image of the Virgin Mary – who spoke to Juan Diego in his native language of Nahuatl and assumed a form similar to the Aztec goddess Tozantzín – as a great mediator between humans and the divine, but also among different human groups:
“Guadalupe unites people of the different races, religions, languages: Chicano protestants, American Indians and whites […]She mediates between the Spanish and the Indian cultures (or three cultures as in the case of the mexicanos of the African or other ancestry) and between Chicano and the white world. She mediates between humans and the divine, between this reality and the reality of the spirit entities. La Virgen de Guadalupe is the symbol of ethnic identity and the tolerance for ambiguity that Chicano- mexicanos, people of mixed race, people who have Indian blood, people who cross cultures, by necessity possess”(Anzaldúa 52).
Like most Catholics, I grew up with the veneration of Mary as part of my regular routine. Praying the rosary was standard in October and May, and to this day that prayer – a meditation on the life of Jesus from the perspective of his mother – remains one of my most treasured spiritual resources, particularly in times of pain and struggle. I consider Marian art to be some of the most beautiful in all of the Western tradition. And, as over time I have learned more about Latin American literature and become involved in Latinx communities, I have come to appreciate the beauty of the Guadalupe story and the complex meaning that this image of Our Lady has for so many, transcending many of the cultural and ideological divisions that can unfortunately isolate Catholics from one another.
At the same time, I have always struggled to relate to the figure of Mary. From an early age I was taught that she – with her decision to say “yes” to being the mother of Jesus – was the model I was to follow as a Christian woman. But this was incredibly difficult to do. Obviously, being a physical virgin and mother is not possible for most of us! Moreover, her appearance in the Gospels is minimal; most of our veneration of Mary comes from an amalgamation of church traditions that treat her as a kind of otherworldly figure. The Mary I prayed to as a child was very much an abstract divine feminine, an eternal “holy queen enthroned above” surrounded by cherubim and seraphim rather than a real, flesh-and-blood Jewish woman living two thousand years ago, in poverty and under a colonial regime.
Many theologians have commented – from different perspectives – on the problematic aspects of our veneration of Mary. In Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary, Elizabeth Johnson argues that many Catholics have gone wrong in projecting onto Mary the feminine aspects of God. Pointing out the many maternal and other feminine images of God in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, she argues that we have erred in viewing the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as irrevocably masculine and then proceeding to deify Mary as a divine maternal figure – thus stripping her of her humanity. For Johnson, Mary’s true place is in the Communion of Saints; she is an exemplary woman of faith, love, and justice (as exemplified in her famous Magnificat, Luke 1:46-56) rather than a distant mother goddess in the sky.
This image of Mary is much more relatable to me as a Catholic woman than the one which I most frequently encountered as a young girl growing up in this faith tradition. When singing hymns like “Hail Holy Queen Enthroned Above” or “Hail Mary: Gentle Woman” I truly got the image of a kind of mother goddess, a somewhat peripheral feminine counterpart to the very male Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And, unfortunately, this image of Mary – as worthy of honor yet marginalized – was very much related to the general view of femininity I was given.
As a child I was taught to consider it normal that there were seven sacraments in the Catholic Church – but only six were open to me. It never occurred to me to wonder why a homily could be given by a priest or ordained male deacon but not a woman. Whenever I asked why there were no female priests, I initially accepted the response that was given: “Men can be priests, and women can be nuns.” However, I also learned that nuns were not considered members of the clergy or the decision-making hierarchy. Women simply were not at the same level. Later, I was told that to even talk about the ordination of women was forbidden.
This is a very difficult message to take in as a woman. For me, the implicit truth in these restrictions came to mean that men are somehow closer to God than women. It came to mean that God is male (and therefore, by extension male is God). It meant that women are meant to be the helpers and complements to men, rather than subjects in our own right. It meant that our ideas are not as important or valuable. Obviously, this attitude does not lie in the Catholic Church only. It is embedded, in different ways, in most human societies. But this was the particular iteration of patriarchy that I encountered, and the image of Mary as a docile “quiet light” reinforced that idea more than it challenged it.
Earlier this autumn, I attended a symposium in Rome as part of the launch of Visions and Vocations, a compilation of essays from Catholic women around the world on the topic of vocation. Before the actual event, we attended a Mass unlike any other that I had ever attended. The presider, a young Jesuit, had arranged the liturgy so that women were as involved as a woman can possibly be under the current rules. What was most significant to me was hearing Ania, an herbalist from Poland now living in England, read the Gospel; then, Catherine, a teacher from Canada, delivered a “reflection” ( it was not called a “homily,” but it came right after the Gospel, and there was no other homily from the presiding priest).
Upon witnessing this, I nearly wept. Something broke in me; some long-held tension was released. I had been yearning to hear a woman preach for so long – and until I heard these two women proclaim the Gospel and reflect on it, I never even knew how much I’d yearned for it. Without even realizing it, I had come to accept the idea of a woman preaching as impossible.
But, it is not impossible. After all, we Christians have a very powerful example of a woman preaching in Mary, who, upon visiting her cousin Elizabeth, proclaims the greatness of the Lord who “has looked upon the humiliation of his servant […] who has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly” (Luke 46: 48,52). What makes her “yes” to the angel Gabriel so marvelous is largely that she agrees to conceive a child as an unmarried woman – something that in her cultural context would have made her subject to death by stoning as an adulteress – and then that, with the help of Joseph, she gives birth to this child under fraught circumstances.
What makes this Miriam of Nazareth so admirable is that she has faith in God’s enduring love despite the fact that she lives under an oppressive political regime, despite the reality of being forced to pick up everything suddenly and migrate to Africa to protect her son. Later, this same Mary goes through what no parent should have to experience: watching her son die – violently, murdered by the state – when he is still a young man. However, she is also a witness to his Resurrection; she then helps build the first Christian community and receives the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, following her son’s command to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 19).
This image of Mary is a much more relatable and inspiring one to me as a Catholic woman than any glorious image of Mary being assumed into heaven or crowned. And, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe takes on a new meaning when we are reminded of its origins – in the Aztec goddess Tonantzín and in Miriam of Nazareth, the historical mother of Jesus. As Anzaldua has suggested, this is a figure who mediates between opposites; in her, the earthly human woman and the divine feminine principle are brought together. Perhaps this is part of what makes her relatable to so many: she is a builder of bridges rather than walls.
On this day, I like to think of Juan Diego’s persistence in convincing the Church authorities to believe in his witness. I like to remember that the European genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas was not absolute, and that marginalized people throughout the Western Hemisphere and indeed the world take comfort in this image. And, I like to recall that the Mary we Catholics honor is not a quiet light, but a preacher – in word, in action, and in the inspiration she brings to those who seek to follow her example.