No Lutheran has taken up the scholarly and ecclesial issues surrounding Our Lady of Guadalupe — in terms of its narratives, popular manifestations, liturgical history, iconography, and implications for theology as a whole — as has liturgist Maxwell Johnson of Notre Dame. “Religiosidad Popular: The Virgin Mary and Lutherans” in the last issue of Let’s Talk asks whether Hispanic-Latino Lutherans must leave behind elements of “popular religion” from their “rather Catholic” culture in order to be evangelical, that is Lutheran Christians. (Among the elements mentioned in the article are devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, rosaries, novenas, altarcitos, and devotion to Mary in her other advocations popular in the Americas.)
Johnson then builds a case for his contention that “there must be another way to approach the topic for those for whom such practices are life-giving, identity-building and faith sustaining.” Johnson hopes
there will be room in the ELCA for recognition of Our Lady of Guadalupe whose December twelfth feast is not on any of our calendars, but whose image and festival can already be found in congregations. He also hopes the gift of Guadalupe may enrich the wider Lutheran community.
In this personal continuation of the conversation from within that wider, sometimes solipsistic community, I hope that evangelical-Luth-eran Christians will become more catholic by receiving Guadalupe precisely in Mariolog-ical terms, as a manifestation of Mary’s dignity as the bearer of God, the one who brings the ultimate to birth. Guad-alupe seems to me to be a sign of hope in times of turmoil over the browning of America.
To review some of Johnson’s argument in favor of that alternative “way” which needs to be found (for readers just entering the conversation) he answers the implicit questions which Lutherans in any pew might raise in objection or curiosity: can there be any devotion to Mary by Lutherans at all? Is invocation
of Mary permissible from a confessional standpoint? Can we ask her to pray for us as Catholics do? Johnson finds room for such invocation opened up in Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue on the One Mediator, the Saints and Mary, which states that just as saints ask one another on earth for prayer, they are permitted to ask the same of departed saints. Invocation is neither commanded nor forbidden.
Further, Luther and Melanchthon believed the company of saints in heaven does pray for the church on earth. Johnson quotes Robert Jenson’s multiple arguments for the perhaps uniquely fitting practice of making invocation to Mary as Mother of God — including that she who carried and contained in her womb the uncontainable God is in a sense heaven. To invoke her is to invoke the company of saints in heaven.
To me, the argument based on Mary’s role as the container of the uncontainable seems rooted in the dogma of Ephesus (431) designating Mary as theotokos (God-bearer), the necessary and obvious human link in the incarnation, the human guarantor of the catholic belief that in Christ are two natures, so united there is but one person.
Such early Mariology serves Christological and Trinitarian orthodoxy. Perhaps this is why I find this argument of Jenson’s the most convincing of those quoted, if I ever needed convincing to do what the Patristic theologians do as second nature. We Lutherans would then better fulfill as they did Mary’s prophecy that all generations will call her blessed.
We Lutherans would also do well to recognize that her necessary role in our salvation is fulfilled by the virgin of Nazareth in all her particularity, humility, and boldness. For her soul magnifies the Lord who has regarded his slave woman, has cast down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the humble.In their views on Marian invocation, both Jenson and Johnson would seem to go beyond the late Arthur Carl Piepkorn’s perhaps daring conclusion that the Magnificat and the pre-Counter-Reformation first half of the Hail Mary can be prayed by Lutherans in honor of the incarnation.
I suspect however, that all of this is bound to come as news, if not shocking news, to many Lutherans, including those from Hispanic-Latino origins. And I mean not only the issues of devotion to and invocation of Mary, but also the dogmatic decision of the universal church underscoring the Christ-ological importance of affirming that Mary is truly, in Western usage, Mother of God.
Johnson argues that Guadalupe devotion in particular is consonant with salvation by Christ alone. He quotes his Notre Dame colleague Virgil Elizondo who responds to the objection to Guadalupe that “Christ alone” is necessary for salvation with the affirmation that Guadalupe is indeed “not necessary.” This is what makes her “so special” as “a gift of God’s love.”
Johnson’s article thus opens up considerable room for the possible addition of a Marian feast to our calendars; possibly assuming that readers and contributors to this conversation will understand in detail how Guadalupe is special, Johnson offers no arguments for the merits of this particular devotion. The rest of my
response will attempt to broaden the Let’s Talk conversation in this direction, drawing on Johnson’s book length treatment of the topic, The Virgin of Guadalupe: Theological Reflections of an Anglo-Lutheran Liturgist.1 The agenda of the book is to investigate whether Protestants and in particular, Anglo-Lutherans, might benefit from the reception of Guadalupe. The book itself exemplifies the kind of dialogue across cultures and confessions which such a reception would require.
The Gift of Guadalupe
The first recorded Marian apparition — of the woman clothed with the sun — was canonized (Rev. 12). Lutherans will be suspicious, as many Roman Catholics are frankly embarrassed, when the subject of Marian apparitions is raised. And tradition holds that Guadalupe stems from an apparition in the Tepeyac hills of Mexico in 1531.
Despite the thousands of reported apparitions over the centuries, the church has been highly selective in affirming that an apparition is “worthy of pious belief.” The idea that the church “fosters such apparitions, along with other superstitions in order to hawk its wares to the gullible” is unfounded.2 Only ten, have been deemed such; the earliest of which is the Tepeyac apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe.3 And these follow a basic pattern. In most of these modern apparitions, the recipients have been humble and poor, like Mary herself, perhaps in fulfillment of the line from the Magnificat4 “he has lifted up the lowly.” In addition to poverty, “race” is part of the story of Guadalupe, for the recipient was Aztec. Also, the religious hierarchy has initially been resistant. Eventually, however, after a miracle or miracles there is an official cult established in relation to the site.
Far from being imposed on a reluctant laity by an authoritarian regime, as hostile interpreters assumed, belief in Marian apparitions has, often as not, been imposed from below on the ecclesiastical authorities… ecclesial approbation and the systematic encouragement of an official cult may be seen as the effort to restrain in the legions of Marian faithful the excesses to which Marian devotion has been especially subject.5
If that kind of statement leaves Lutherans more confident in official Catholicism’s scrutiny of apparitions in general, I suspect it does nothing to make them more confident that apparitions “happen” or that “excesses” will be avoided.
In fact, Johnson maintains that the value of Guadalupe does not hinge on the historicity of the apparition. And while Johnson as a scholar is interested to document and understand the full range of meanings ascribed to Guadalupe as a devotion in popular Catholicism and the religion of the people, pastors will,
however, need to decide in their contexts what is excess and what is not, what is consonant with the gospel and what is not. For readers of the book will find interpretations of Guadalupe as everything from an ancient goddess, to a replacement in practice, if not conceptually, for God in prayer and piety.
I asked the women I talked to as part of my research, “Do you think that she’s more important than God?” and they say, “Oh no.” But if you say to them “When you pray, whom do you pray to?” they say, “Guadalupe, Mary.” I say, “Why would you go to her with things that you would not go to God with?” “Because she’s a woman, she understands.”6
Interestingly, the women seem here to appreciate Mary’s approachability as one who is both
human (though the angel is at her feet) and female like them; as Mary must be in order to give Christ his human nature, in order to be Mother of God.
Issues of excess or balance notwithstanding, I am in admiration of Johnson, Elizondo, and Pope John Paul II for wresting from the multifaceted phenomenon of Guadalupe, interpretations of Guadalupe that are faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such moves are only possible, of course, when there is in the phenomenon itself, the devotion, the narratives, the image, that which points toward the gospel of Jesus Christ. And this Johnson is eager to show.
There has been a lack of surviving early documentary evidence for the Guadalupe apparition and devotion; the two narratives, one in Spanish and a much longer one in Nahuatl, date from a century later, 1648 and 1649 respectively, and show distinctive theological accents, as we might expect. Johnson is able to trace the devotion to much earlier. But even more fascinating for Lutherans is the contrast Johnson makes concerning these apparition narratives and those of more recent apparitions. The latter show a God of wrath, whose Son is offended by ritual infractions and demands certain ritual performance. Guadalupe has a very different message.7
Juan Diego, according to tradition, is the humble Aztec man to whom a beautiful and important Lady appears at dawn amid the heavenly singing of birds and blossoming of flowers (in December!) initiating an affectionate conversation with him. In the Nahuatl account, “her clothing appeared like the sun and sent forth rays.”8 The woman identifies herself as “The Ever-Virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the God of Great Truth, Teotl, of the One through Whom we live, the Creator of Persons, the Owner of What Is Near and Together, the Lord of Heaven and Earth.” She commissions Juan to ask the Bishop to build her a temple
on the site, where she “the Mother of all nations”9 can heal and show compassion on all the people. That is her only request.
At first meeting with rejection and distrust, then distracted by the grave illness of a relative, whom the Lady heals, Juan Diego, her “most abandoned son,” is given a sign: he is to gather fresh roses which the “Queen of Heaven” arranges in his tunic, to deliver to the “the lord of the priests.” He does so. When the roses fall to the ground, “she painted herself …just as she is today…[the image] in Guadalupe.”10 The bishop and others are stunned and repentant.
Our Lady of Guadalupe has been hailed as a model of evangelization. Johnson explains that the manner of her appearing and speech is respectful of Aztec religion and culture. Also, in the enshrined image Mary is dressed in turquoise, the Aztec color of royalty and “supreme deity,” and that her brown or olive skin is that of “a New World mestiza, one who represents the blending of the Iberian European with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.”11
Further … the cinta or black band visible around her waist is interpreted as an Aztec band of maternity indicating pregnancy and in the very center of the image, over the virgin’s navel, has been discerned an Aztec symbol of new life depicting the center of the universe. Together with the small cross appearing in the brooch around her neck, these symbols have, of course, been interpreted Christologically as indicating that it is the person of Christ who is at the very center of the Guadalupan image.12
For Elizondo, Guadalupe inaugurated and signifies “evangelization through incarnation” 13 and I read Elizondo metaphorically here. Yet “incarnation” is a reminder of God’s way with the world in the one incarnation — so Luther’s Christmas hymn “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” And this condescension is grace. Johnson says that while the Iberian conquerors and missionaries were threatening hell and forcing conversions, “the method of Guadalupe is based on beauty, recognition and respect for “the other” and friendly dialogue.”14
John Paul II has said: “In America, the mestiza face of the Virgin of Guadalupe was from the start a symbol of the enculturation of the gospel…”15 Mary, as type of the church and bright image of what the church hopes to become, as Johnson frequently points out, here represents the church resulting from this clash of cultures, and still “waiting to be born.”
I see the image of Guadalupe as an icon of Mary as theotokos, and consequently one in which she points to Christ as her Eastern icons do.
[E]ven though this imprint is a Marian image it is a beautiful Christ-centered presentation of the Incarnation within the American soil. Once again it is through Mary that God will receive his human face and heart. It will be a woman of this land who will give to the God made man his human characteristics so
that he may dwell amongst us. Not as a stranger but truly in every sense one of our own.16
Part of the “gift” of Guadalupe for our time is surely that the messengers of God, Mary who points to Christ and Juan Diego whom she chooses, are not members of the elite, Caucasian conquerors. They are brown, like the people of the land. And their mission is to convert everyone to the Christ who comes to and identifies himself with the people. That includes converting the church of the present.
Mary’s pregnancy is a sign of hope, of life, an affirmation of the future for a people who had lost their home, their religion, everything. How God has regarded this slave woman, in a virtual depiction of the Magnificat, for Mary — her self-designation in the narrative — will bring the Son of the Most High to birth. Like the woman of Revelation, she shines like the sun! Yet she is still a woman, a “woman of the land.” It serves also as a reminder, that the Mary and Jesus of the gospels were among the poor of first century Palestine, with whom the lowly, the displaced of this land and time — especially those who have left the security of their homeland — can now identify.
Even today, as do all icons, the image lures us gently with its beauty.17 The image and narratives of Guadalupe also show, to borrow Jenson’s language, that the face of heaven is compassionate towards all people. Like her, Lutherans should be Christ-centered. Like her, we may be of the earth, but are to be transfigured with the light of Christ. One of the more intriguing images of Guadalupe that I have seen, one by artist Br. M. McGrath (Bee Still Studio), does not include the cinta, but indicates Mary’s pregnancy by showing that the origin of the rays streaming out from her originate from the sun within. As the (human) Mother of God, Guadalupe asks to be received as the mother of all peoples, and to be the mother also of Lutherans, if we receive this gift from Hispanic-Latino culture. And the dark face of la morenita
shows that the browning of America which is going on before our eyes is also to be received with the blessing of heaven’s compassionate face.
(New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2002). I will make
clear in the text or note when Johnson is quoting others, but refer readers only
to his text, where they can find the original reference. Everything I know
about Our Lady of Guadalupe I learned from Johnson.
Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 178.
Jeanette Rodriguez, quoted in Johnson, 95. Johnson says of this quote
that Guadalupe does not replace God “at least on a conceptual level,” 95.
Elizondo, quoted in Johnson, 65.
Quoted in Johnson, 69.
Virgil Elizondo, La Morenita: Evangelizer of the
Americas (San Antonio, Mexican American Cultural Center, 1980.