This column ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on December 10, 2007.
In the late-afternoon sun, it’s just warm enough to enjoy a cup of tea on the back patio of my condominium in East San Jose. There are egrets fishing in the urban creek that runs behind my home. One last tomato is trying to turn red in what remains of my garden. The air is clear. The Christmas lights have been hung, and the tree will go up tonight. There is a quiet lull and this is a winter wonderland of sorts. Here there are no sleigh bells ringing—the nearest snow is hundreds of miles away on the Sierra Nevada—but the beauty of winter has many faces and this is one of them.
In a few days’ time this quiet will be replaced by the joyful noise of pilgrims from all over Northern California, who will celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Roman Catholic church across the street; the church is named in honor of Mexico’s patron saint, and has the added distinction and draw of being the parish church in which Cesar Chavez was confirmed and in which he was nurtured in the faith that inspired his work on behalf of California’s farm laborers.
The celebration of Guadalupe lasts all night. There are mariachis, Aztec dancers, street vendors hawking roses and religious kitsch. The tacos bear witness to God’s grace. No one sleeps. There are masses, and Mexican hat dances, and as the morning begins to break over the peak of Mt. Hamilton, on Silicon Valley’s East Side, the gathered congregation sings las mañanitas to Our Lady of Guadalupe: que linda esta la mañana en que vengo a saludarte/ vinimos todos con gusto y placer a felicitarte (how beautiful is the morning in which I come to greet you/ with happiness and pleasure we come to wish you joy).
In the four years that I have lived in the shadow of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s parish church, I’ve grown quite fold of la Virgin morena
This, I’ll admit, is strange for a Presbyterian pastor, but consider the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance: on December 9, in the year 1531, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an indigenous Mexican camposino reported to the local Spanish bishop that he had been visited by the Mother of Jesus. This would have been alarming enough, but the most remarkable thing about Mary’s appearance to Juan Diego is that she appeared to him as an indigenous girl, speaking in Nahuatl, the language of the local population. The apparition’s validity was proved when, three days later, Juan Diego arrived at the Bishop’s doorstep bearing Spanish roses and an image of the Virgin imprinted on his serape.
Ever since then, the color of Guadalupe’s skin and her fluency in Nahuatl have served as promises that God is not just European. God comes in as many colors as do humans, and God speaks each human language. The beauty of God has more faces than does the beauty of winter.
God is about the business of revelation and no one can say which language God will speak when God appears or what God’s skin will look like or what God’s gender will be. These are matters for God, in God’s freedom to decide.
If the Mother of Christ can take upon herself the voice and appearance of an indigenous peasant, then it becomes very likely that the religious differences we humans hold so dear are, in fact, nothing more than God walking among us in various guises and speaking every human language.
This should, at the very least, keep us humble.
Or so it seems on my patio in the beauty of winter in the barrio. The sun has dropped behind the Santa Cruz mountains to the west, and the north wind has started to pick up. It’s time to harvest that last tomato and go inside for dinner.