The Day of the Lady © Jan L. Richardson
How lovely that the lectionary offers us the Magnificat during a week that contains a day of celebration in honor of Mary. Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which commemorates the appearances of Mary to a man named Juan Diego between December 9-12, 1531, in Mexico. Known by various names including the Mother or Patroness of the Americas and La Virgen Morena (The Brown-skinned Virgin), Our Lady of Guadalupe is a culturally unique and passionately beloved manifestation of Mary.
According to the legend, Our Lady of Guadalupe made her appearance to Juan Diego about a decade following the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, who brought with them, among other things, the practice of Roman Catholicism. An early convert to the new faith, Juan Diego was walking from his village toward what is now Mexico City when, on a hillside, the Virgin appeared to him and, speaking in Diego’s native language of Nahuatl, told him to take a message to the bishop that a sanctuary should be built on that site. Diego made several visits to Bishop Zumárraga, who was naturally skeptical of this peasant man. Finally the bishop asked for a sign. The Virgin provided one. Sending Juan Diego to the top of Tepeyac Hill, Mary told him to pick the roses he would find there. Gathering the out-of-season blooms in his tilma (cloak), he set out once again to see the bishop. When Juan Diego opened his tilma in the presence of Bishop Zumárraga, the stunning December roses spilled forth, but Mary had one more miracle in store: to the amazement of those present, the empty tilma bore an image of the Virgin.
The Lady received her sanctuary.
In the succeeding centuries, controversies have attended the Virgin of Guadalupe, including disputes over the authenticity of her appearances and of the image on the tilma, which still survives. Her role as an indigenous manifestation of Mary receives much attention; emerging from the encounter of native Mexican religion with the Catholicism of the conquistadores, she is perceived by some as a sort of syncretistic, Christianized goddess. Whatever her origins and meanings, Our Lady of Guadalupe persists as a powerful presence of hope and a beloved sign of Mary’s love for the Americas.
In a bookstore several years ago, I picked up a small volume titled Felicidad de México. Published in 1995 to commemorate the centennial of the coronation of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the book is in Spanish, which I understand muy poquito and read just barely enough to be dangerous. I got it for the pictures. Filled with wonderful images of Mary, the pages offer many versions of the apparition of Guadalupe. In these depictions, the blue-cloaked Mary wears a crown, hovers above an angel-held crescent moon, and shimmers in a penumbra of sunlight with rays like knife blades. Always, there are roses.
The depictions of Our Lady of Guadalupe resonate vividly with the image of the celestial woman who appears in Revelation 12. Garbed with the sun, with a crown of stars and the moon beneath her feet, the woman cries out in travail as she gives birth to a male child “who is to rule all the nations.” At her feet, a dragon waits to devour her child. The visionary John tells of how the child is saved and of how, in a particularly evocative scene, the woman flees into the wilderness, where God has prepared a place of sanctuary and nourishment for her.
Across the centuries, many have interpreted this vision of the heavenly woman to be an image of Mary, who brought forth Christ. Despite its resonance with the mother of Jesus, this passage from Revelation 12 doesn’t appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, in any season. (For now, I’ll save my thoughts on mainstream religion’s tendency to leave the Book of Revelation in the hands of those who have badly misused it.) In the Roman Catholic tradition, the woman makes her appearance in the lections for the Feast of the Assumption.
Despite its absence from the Revised Common Lectionary, Revelation 12 is a good passage to visit during this Advent season. Historically, Advent—from the Latin adventus, which means coming or arrival—has been a time not only to reflect on the birth of Christ, his first coming, but also to anticipate his second coming. My experience in the mainline church is that we give a lot of happy attention to the first sense of Advent, and much less attention to the second sense. Not without reason; it’s a tricky topic. It’s challenging to talk about endings, especially The Big End. Christianity uses the word eschatology to refer to Final Things, a word that, while useful, tends to sap the poetry right out of the subject.
I spent a lot of time thinking about Final Things last year when I decided to set out on an artful pilgrimage through the strange pages of Revelation. (Hello, my name is Jan, and I’m an eschatologist…) It was something of a continuation of a journey that had begun years ago in a seminary class on Revelation, a remarkable course taught by a team of professors from the fields of worship, preaching, storytelling, and drama. It was the first occasion I’d had to hear Revelation all the way through, from beginning to end, rather than hearing fragments of it, usually picked out by people using it to manipulate or inspire fear. The book is bizarre, and it is beautiful. In its wide visionary sweep, it offers some of the most powerful poetry of the Christian tradition (some of the canticles I wrote about yesterday come from Revelation) and some of the most hopeful images of a God who longs to be in relationship with us and to set creation right.
My artful apocalyptic pilgrimage was also fueled by my research into medieval manuscripts. In the Middle Ages, the Book of Revelation received the fascinated and fascinating attention of commentators, scribes, and artists who created some of the most compelling illuminated manuscripts that remain from this period. 13th-century England produced an especially intriguing collection of illuminated Apocalypses. In these versions of the book of Revelation, the artists sometimes depicted the visionary John as a pilgrim, complete with a walking staff. From page to page, he appears at the margins of the artwork, sometimes peering through a doorway or window into the unfolding apocalyptic scenes. Suzanne Lewis, in her book on the 13th-century Apocalypses (titled Reading Images), comments on how these illuminated manuscripts invited the reader/viewer to accompany John on his journey to the holy Jerusalem that appears at the end of Revelation. In a period when the Crusades made it unsafe to undertake a physical pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the illuminated Apocalypses offered what the medieval writer Hugh of St. Victor called a perigrinatio in stabilitate: a pilgrimage in place.
Inspired by the seminary class and the medieval manuscripts, I began my creative pilgrimage through the pages of Revelation, with a piece of charcoal for a pilgrim’s staff. (To see its results, visit Art of the Apocalypse.) As I went through this intense experience of artful lectio divina, I was struck by how the themes of Revelation persist in our daily lives. Birth, loss, hope, tribulation, desire, devastation, resurrection, destruction, redemption: all these themes and more are writ large in the pages of Revelation, but they form the text of our own lives as well. In some sense, we are living the Apocalypse daily, continually making a pilgrimage both toward and with the God who stands at the beginning and ending of time and in every place between.
On this feast day of the beloved Lady of Guadalupe, here at this midpoint of Advent, I’m giving some thought to where I am in this journey through the season, and through my life. At this place on the path, I find myself feeling both comforted and challenged by the images that centuries of faithful folks have offered of the mother of Jesus, the mother of God. John’s vision of the celestial woman, and Juan’s vision of the Lady of Guadalupe, are both cosmic and intimate, awe-inspiring and inviting. They call to mind the words of the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart, who wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”
In these Advent days, where are you seeing signs of the coming of the Christ who was, and who is, and who is yet to come?
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