theolog cabin

Hosted by semfem, this is a warm, cozy place to curl up and ponder theological matters.

Monday, August 07, 2006

December 15, 2004 (Advent 3 Midweek)

[preached at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK]
Luke 1:46-55 (The Book of God by Walt Wangerin)

Some remembrances form a meditation for our midweek Advent services, which each focused on a different translation of the Magnificat--Mary's song. Click on the time link for Walt's words, and to read what I had to say.

Luke 1:46-55, as told in The Book of God by Walt Wangerin

Mary whispered, "Things are changing! I think God is turning the whole world upside down. What do you think? God is lifting up the little people, a lowly maid like me, he is blessing me! Next he will knock the mighty from their thrones! And hungry people will eat, and rich people will go hungry! Things are changing! I know it. The world will not be the same tomorrow. Does anyone else know this, too? God is rising up, just as he did for Israel in Egypt. God is remembering his people! He is remembering the promises which he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham's children forever. My soul magnifies the Lord! I can't help it anymore. My spirit is rejoicing in God my Savior!

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Maybe you heard about this, but there was a huge celebration last Sunday, down at the Catholic church named for Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was a celebration of the day the Virgin Mary appeared just outside of Mexico City to a poor native peasant named Juan Diego, almost 475 years ago. Now, if you were here a few weeks ago, you might remember Pastor Larry telling us the story of Juan Diego and his vision of Mary. It's the story where Mary appeared to this peasant and told him to carry a message from her to the bishop of Mexico, that he should build a temple to her on that very spot. When the bishop did not believe Juan Diego, he was given a sign by Mary: roses, blooming on a rocky hillside in the middle of December. Juan Diego carried an armful of the roses in his cloak to the bishop, emptied the cloak out, and mysteriously Mary's image appeared on the cloak's fabric. This image is actually a photograph of the cloak as it appears today.

Now, the bishop didn't just say, "Okay, I believe you, Juan Diego, let's get started building this temple." He actually dropped to his knees weeping, and prayed and begged forgiveness of Mary for not listening to her messenger sooner. For Mexicans then and now, this is not just a minor historical epilogue. You see, only ten years before Mary's appearance to Juan Diego, Mexico had been conquered by the Spanish in a very violent conflict. In Juan Diego's vision, Mary was not pale-skinned like the conquerors, but dark-skinned like Juan Diego and the people who had been conquered. She spoke not in Latin or Spanish, but in the native language Nahuatl. The bishop's plea for forgiveness was also the conqueror bowing down before the conquered, the European admitting defeat before the Nahuatl. A Mary who inspired awe and respect from the conquerers was immensely important to a conquered people. As far as they were concerned, this was turning the world upside down. Mary's song was coming true! The mighty were being knocked from their thrones, and the lowly were being lifted up!

Today Mary's temple still stands in Mexico City. It is known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. People come from thousands of miles away to pay their respects to Mary, the Mother of God, who was also one of them, their own mother, and one of the "little people" as Walt Wangerin calls them. Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico--towns and businesses have shrines to her and every cathedral has a chapel or an area devoted to her. One market even has a large picture of her made completely of dried beans. The red rose continues to be her symbol. This candle here is a votive candle that bears her image. Everyone in Mexico claims her as their mother and their advocate.

In January of this year, I was able to go to Mexico City with a group of other Lutheran seminary students. When our small group traveled from Mexico City to Cuernavaca, and prepared to visit La Estacion (that is, The Station--one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city), we were honestly very scared about what we were going to see. Everyone who lives there is what we might call a "squatter." They are not allowed to own the land they live on and could be evicted by the government at any time. Some of them have lived there for decades. As you approach the border of La Estacion, you can see the hundreds of illegal wires tapping into other people's power meters. As you walk along the plywood paths inside the settlement, you can hear the makeshift sewers flowing right under where you are walking. Homes are made from corrugated tin, plywood, fiberboard, scrap metal, whatever people can find, and have hard-packed dirt for floors.

As you go in the main entrance to La Estacion, you see two very different sights facing each other. On the right, you can see the only permanent structure in the neighborhood. It is a small but well-kept stone building that looks like a home. In the States it would be about average size. For Mexico, it's pretty large. There is an iron fence around it and a padlock on the doors. This is the neighborhood chapel. It has room to be a full-fledged parish, and room for several priests to live there, but the Catholic church refuses to make it a parish because that would give the appearance that the church approved of the settlement and the people who live there without owning the land. It's an impressive building, but a very sad building. It has no life in it. Nobody has ever lived there. Nobody can ever go there. It serves no real purpose as a church.

Across the street is a rocky vacant lot with boulders and large stones. The ground is dusty and hard and nothing grows there. On the tallest rock, there is a big statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Small flowers are carefully placed on the rocks before her. This is the center of devotion in La Estacion. Men pause to pray for a few minutes before the statue of Mary in the morning as they leave the settlement to try and find work. Children coming home from school pause in the afternoon. Women come there during the day and leave something small in the hopes that Mary will hear their prayer. A simple sign is posted at the base of the rocks. It says in Spanish: "This is holy ground."

Our group visited two women who live in La Estacion. It's not uncommon for needy Mexican women to develop small businesses on the side in order to make even a little money. One of our hostesses, Andrea, offered to sell us dozens of fresh red roses.

You see, the Morales region, not far from Mexico City, is known for growing most of the world's supply of roses. When you buy roses in February for Valentine's Day, chances are they were imported from Morales. Roses are a common product for Mexican families to sell as they scrape together a living. Our group leader bought a dozen on behalf of the entire group.

We walked slowly out of La Estacion in near-silence after hearing the stories of these women's lives, about what gave them hope and what brought them to despair. One had lived in La Estacion for over forty years. We passed the padlocked church and the dusty holy ground of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The rest of the group had walked ahead of me and only our group leader was behind me. On a whim, I asked him for one of the dozen roses he was carrying. I took the rose and stood for a while at the base of the rocks, pondering where I should put it. Finally I carefully laid it on top of the sign that said, "This is holy ground."

What does it mean that many Mexican families sell this symbol of Mary in order to support themselves? Has this sacred symbol now become worthless except as a commodity? Or do these families see the rose as a gift from Mary to help feed their families? Is this how God is lifting up the little people? Is Mary's song coming true in neighborhoods like La Estacion? How much further is there to go before her song is fulfilled?

Between visiting La Estacion and the Basilica of Guadalupe, our group studied and pondered the words of the Magnificat. We started admitting that we felt guilty and helpless about what we had seen. The thought of Mary singing and magnifying God is a beautiful image we love to think about. But her message to us is a stinging one. Those of us who had seen La Estacion knew that if Mary's song were to be fulfilled, we were the ones who would be brought low. We were the ones who would be going hungry. We were the ones who would be knocked off our thrones.

So where does that leave us? Does the wheel simply revolve, putting us at the bottom of the heap and Andrea and Juan Diego at the top of the heap? Is it all just a huge game of worldly power? Mary says NO. And just as she trusts that she, an unwed pregnant teenager with an unbelievable story, will be lifted up, we trust that Christ's coming brings that justice that the world is not capable of manufacturing. A justice where nobody will have too little or too much, and God will refuse to play the power games of this world. A justice that turns the whole world upside down and into something new. Amen.