Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
This December was a very Marian, and very ambulatory, month for me. Let me explain.
On December 8, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. On December 12, Mexican and Mexican-American Catholic communities celebrate the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who happens to be the patroness of our parish in San Antonio. My housemate Meghan and I have at times exchanged feelings of irony at being placed there. For both of us, the most salient parts of our identity as Catholics and the things which continue to attract us to the Catholic Church (while different from each others’) have little to do with the beautiful but beguiling figure of Mary and the elaborate and often esoteric dogmas associated with her. My personal piety and spirituality are much more medieval, and historical-philosophical-Augustinian, than, say, 19th century and devotional-dogmatic-Marian (if that opposition makes any sense). Given, too, that I find myself definitively removed from my native cultural milieu this year, I wondered whether this Mary-a-thon would leave me feeling alienated or estranged from my adoptive community. In the end, it didn’t. It actually gave me a lot to think about.
First, a few words of explanation. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception does not refer, as is commonly thought, to the virgin birth of Jesus. It has to do, instead, with the belief that Mary herself was, from the moment of her own conception, divinely preserved from all taint of original sin. This belief has existed since the early days of the Church, and while Pope Sixtus IV instituted its Feast Day (that is, its commemoration or celebration) in 1476, Catholics were free to accept the idea or reject it until Pope Pius IX made it dogmatic with his 1854 constitution Ineffabilis Deus. In my opinion, the attempt to derive certainty about the Immaculate Conception from the Archangel Gabriel’s famous salutation in the Gospel of Luke (“Hail Mary, full of grace” — according to just one translation of the unique and difficult Greek phrasing which supposes this “fullness” not to admit any room for original sin) is tenuous. Nonetheless, I like the idea of it. Catholics always have to ask themselves why it was at that particular place and time, rather than any other, that the Word became flesh. Could it have been, perhaps, all because of Mary? Ineffabilis Deus, if we can peer through its typically preconciliar purple prose, posits an intriguing causality: “Above all creatures did God so love [Mary],” it states, “that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity…” That is, God loved Mary before preserving her from sin, presumably for some unnamed merits of hers; and yet it was her preservation from sin which allowed her to exist free from sin, that is, which allowed her initial lovable goodness to flourish into the most saintly life humanity has known. The Immaculate Conception therefore seems to me not a magic spell by which God creates, randomly and vaingloriously, a clockwork orange or immortal superhero for our veneration (which is admittedly how Ineffabilis Deus reads sometimes); it is, rather, God’s decision to perfect this being who already came closer to perfection than any other throughout human history has. It is significant in a Christian eschatology that at this particular moment, in the famous “fullness of time,” God came out of his hiding to intercede miraculously in human history so that his long-gestating plan for human salvation might come, at last, to fruition. That Mary was good enough to accept the Son of God into her womb — could this have been a reflection of how she was also so extraordinarily good that her extra-ordinary goodness was itself the invitation God needed to send his Son, at last, into the world?
This is just my very speculative, rather humanistic, and hopefully non-heretical interpretation of what I find to be among the most difficult, but also provocative and productive, Catholic dogmas. The Immaculate Conception may have a lot to say about the way that the cooperation of God’s grace is necessary for any of us to put our (not unconsiderable) human freedom to use for our own sanctification. At the same time, it opens up a beguiling question for Christian belief regarding this human freedom: if, as according to Ineffabilis Deus, Mary was lovable to God even before her conception, and if God rewards Mary with protection from original sin at least in part for her own merits (and not simply for the work he himself had unilaterally wrought in her already), would it be correct to say that our freedom to make ourselves into who we are antedates our own biological conception, and that our free will accordingly has its beginning and essence outside of linear, common time?
Whereas the Immaculate Conception challenges me because it represents one of the most cosmic and mysterious events in the Christian drama, the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe eludes me a little because its interest is in many ways so local. Here’s how this story goes: On December 9, 1531, an indigenous Nahuan Mexican named Juan Diego beheld a vision of the Virgin Mary on Tepeyac Hill. The Virgin supposedly beseeched him, in his native language, to build a Church on the hill. Juan Diego rushed to the bishop’s residence, but it took three days for him to persuade the kindly but understandably skeptical bishop that the apparition was genuine. Juan Diego relayed to Mary the bishop’s request for a sign, and on December 12, the Virgin bade Juan Diego to gather Castilian roses (which were not indigenous to Tepeyac and couldn’t have grown there in winter, anyway) from the hill. Juan Diego found the roses and, when he released them from his tilma (cloak) before the bishop’s startled eyes, they both beheld the now-famous image of Guadalupe divinely imprinted on the fabric.
The original tilma, perhaps the most revered and controversial Catholic icon after the Shroud of Turin, is preserved in a basilica built on Tepeyac Hill (and it is reproduced on nearly every candle, mural, and bumper sticker I’ve seen here on the West Side of San Antonio). Our Lady of Guadalupe is considered the protectoress of Mexico and of the continental Americas more broadly. The Jesuit parish where I work is a regional sanctuary dedicated to this devotion, and as such, pilgrims come from all over the city and even state to pray here. The fact that the Jesuits priests are themselves so compassionate and concerned with social justice makes it a particularly welcoming and consoling destination.
The Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the biggest day of the year for our parishioners and for many across the continent. In our parish, celebrations began the night before, as members of our youth group performed a skit reenacting the Tepeyac legend. (They did a fantastic job; although I had nothing to do with the rehearsals, I was very proud!) Then there were matachines dancing in the Church all night: dancers bedecked in extravagant costumes of indigenous people and of demons, beating drums and shaking mariachis and enacting a symbolic musical battle between good and evil. At the climax of each dance, which (to the extent that I saw before going to bed) would last between thirty and fifty minutes, everyone in the audience would take turns lining up in the back of the church and skipping up the central aisle alongside a handful of matachines until they reached the main altar and could venerate an image of the Virgin. These long, elaborate dances were interspersed by recitations of the rosary. It was quite an interesting vigil.
December 12 is a day of pilgrimages. For the two months prior, as it has been every year, a torch was relayed from Mexico City to New York City to symbolize the unity of the Americas under the patronage of Guadalupe. One of our office assistants tells me that back in Mexico, Catholics often undertake a fortnight of extensive fasting, penitential exercises, and spiritual and physical training for a roughly three-day march from wherever they live to some special preordained destination, be it the Guadalupe shrine in Monterrey or the basilica on Tepeyac Hill itself. Emphasis during these preparations is placed on personal kindness; should things get tense on the days-long peregrinaje, or should someone grow ill or incapable of continuing the journey, the expectation is that the other pilgrims will have the patience and sense of charity needed to calm disputes and to help the ailing without losing their temper or their spiritual cool.
Our own pilgrimage is only one day long, but at 17.4 miles, it’s no walk in the park. In fact, if only it were a walk in the park! As it happens, the route from our own parish to our sister parish, also called Our Lady of Guadalupe, in the affluent suburb of Helotes, shoots northwest along Bandera Rd., an endless progression of strip malls, highway overpasses, and fast food joints with motor vehicle exhaust always heavy in the air. A few of my housemates and I, accompanied by one of the parish youth, took the lead, and so we felt a bit distanced from what was presumably the linear and spiritual center of the procession. A few people behind us were reciting the rosary for a while, but we got sufficiently far ahead of the action that in the end the experience was more of a trudge animated by lively yet random conversation than it was a spiritual odyssey. To be truthful, though, while I benefit from a good pilgrimage as much as the next guy, I’m not sure I have enough of a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe for this trek to have been as profound an experience as it was for many of the parishioners whose dedication to Guadalupe is intense. In the months preceding, people of all ages and physical conditions make promises to her that if they receive such and such a grace they’ll walk the 17 miles in thanksgiving, or else they’ll do it in memory of a loved one or loved ones who have passed away that year. It’s a very solemn promise, so fewer people than I’d have thought wound up using the car shuttles driving to and fro along the route for those who started but couldn’t finish. I felt privileged to observe and participate in this spiritual exercise, even if only at its periphery.
The walk (did I mention it was 17.4 miles? yes, our legs were a little tender afterwards) culminated with a Mass celebrated by the Archbishop in Helotes. Actually, though, I felt that the Marian experience really culminated a few days later with another beautiful ritual with which I hadn’t been familiar. Most of us know the story of Mary and Joseph’s arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, city of Joseph’s forebears, to be counted in a census that Caesar Augustus had ordained. Because the little town of Bethlehem was swamped with travelers the night Mary’s time came to give birth, there were no vacant rooms in any of the inns and the couple had to make do with a manger. To put themselves into Mary and Joseph’s frame of mind, many Mexican and Latin American communities (for whom the experience of the unwelcome migrant is often already a personal one) organize what are called las posadas (“the inns”). A community will gather at a specified place (we used the church) in the evening, designate a man to dress as Joseph and a woman to dress as Mary, and follow these two figures in procession to a series of three houses. At the first two houses, the homeowners — or members of the procession designated to play the innkeepers — will stand on the porch and refuse the crowd entrance over the course of a lovely (yet very difficult to sing!) traditional musical dialogue. Finally, at the third preordained location (a house, a parish hall, or a church), the crowd will be welcomed inside, will proceed to a Nativity Scene for veneration, and will finally be allowed to eat and drink and party. The kids get to hit a piñata.
Normally, communities will perform the posadas every night for nine nights, culminating in La Gran Posada on Christmas Eve. Although I was only able to participate in the very first, on December 16, it was a meaningful experience, more so than the Guadalupe pilgrimage. Walking for an hour through the night, past houses I know by day but which are now made simultaneously mysterious and forbidding by the fall of dusk and the iron gridding pulled defensively over front doors, in the company of solemn marchers intoning the ever-present rosary, I achieved the introspective aloneness at the heart of a supportive human family which is one of the great experiences that religious, and some few other, communities have to offer. This introspective aloneness is conducive to the kind of imaginative prayer that the Jesuits’ founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, counseled generally but also specifically in regards to the Nativity scene. “See in imagination the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem,” Ignatius writes in a prelude to one of the contemplations in his Spiritual Exercises. “Consider its length and breadth, whether it is level or winds through valleys and hills. Similarly, look at the place or cave of the Nativity: How big is it, or small? How low or high? And how is it furnished?”
Contemporary San Antonio is very different from how Bethlehem was two thousand years ago, but looking up at the veiled head of our own “Mary” from where I walked at the back of the procession, I nevertheless had the opportunity to think vividly about what it means to follow Mary. Yes, we Catholics believe she is the cosmically pure Immaculate Conception; yes, we look to her as the protectoress of our respective nations and home communities whose very image, as Pope Benedict explained in a beautiful speech, “constitutes a sweet and reassuring presence” and makes the human city “more beautiful, more Christian and more humane.” But she was also a human being, probably a mystic with an inner life much worth meditating on. On her arduous journey (pregnant, poor, afraid) through Galilee and Judea she may not have had to pass garish Christmas lawn displays whose bulbous-eyed balloon Santas were transformed by the solemnity of the night into eerie, grotesque sentinels; but hers was a great soul which nonetheless belonged to the material order of existence, and before the angel came to her and she gave birth to the Messiah and she witnessed his miraculous ministry and history-altering death on the Cross, she would have had to find God in the enigmatic ordinariness of a world in which one’s feet grow tired, not every pilgrimage seems meaningful, and not every old lawn ornament looks like a signpost of the divine. The magnificat of Mary; a human being’s “meriting” (in the words of the Regina Coeli) to bear the son of God; and really, her whole existence, argue together that the finite does have some capacity for the infinite. This is perhaps a fitting meditation for the New Year, which coincides with the date on the Christian calendar (January 1) that commemorates Mary as “the Mother of God.”
María, Madre de Dios, Virgen de Guadalupe, Concepción Immaculada, y Madre Nuestra– ora por nosotros.