I presume all my readers know the story. In the early days of the mission to the Americas, things were not going well. Mary appeared to the peasant Juan Diego in the image of an Aztec princess. She imprinted a miraculous image of this apparition on his tilma, which remains miraculously preserved to this day. The image served as a major point of conversion for the Indians throughout the Americas, and remains a key part of the North and South American Catholic heritage to this day.
I want to make just two points about Our Lady of Guadalupe.
First, she shows us that God is truly with us. The central point of the image is that Mary appears not as a European, but as an Indian. God became man in a particular time and place. Jesus spoke a particular language, with a particular dialect. His skin, eyes, and hair color showed him to belong to a particular race (though, amazingly, most of us aren’t sure what that was). His disciples were known by their funny accents. I was not there.
But the point of the Incarnation was not that Jesus came just for that time and place, but that he came for all times and places. That he embraces the particular, so that I find him in the funny accents where I live, my particular culture, my time in history. Jesus did not banish history, but embraced it, in all its particularity.
The infamous blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus speaks truth if by it we mean that he came also for people like me. It speaks a lie if it makes us think he only came for people like me. (And Pope Francis has vividly reminded us, with his economic message, that that lie is so very easy to embrace. We of the blue eyes and richest nation in the history of the world probably do well to think more about him coming for people who don’t look like us! He is just as black as he is blue eyed.)
Mary stands for the humanity of Jesus. It is her particularity that he embraces. And so Mary is the one who appears to the Indians as one of them: to say, yes, Jesus was born of woman not to alienate you, but to embrace you. God is so close to you in Jesus that you can count his mother as one of you. It is your world that God embraced in the Incarnation.
My second point is that we live at the Antipodes. We, the Americans – with our Pope, from the most southern country of the Americas – are truly “the ends of the earth.”
We live in an age of American Empire. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if rightly embraced. Empires can bring peace, as the Roman Empire did in the time of Jesus. And our Empire, in some ways, is particularly benevolent, or at least has the opportunity to be that way.
But to be a truly benevolent Empire – or anyway, a truly benevolent America – it does us well to remember that we actually aren’t the center of the world. Jerusalem is.
The old medieval maps showed it this way, and the insight is remarkable. From Jerusalem spring out the three great ancient continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia. All of them, in fact, took turns conquering Jerusalem: first Egypt, then Babylon, then Rome. But there it is: the world radiating out from Jerusalem. And America, the New World, is really the other side of the world, the big island that is opposite. They used to call this the “antipodes.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe reminds us Americans that we belong to this strange Atlantis. Not the center of the world, but its farthest reaches, its strangest and youngest outpost. Not Australia: they are the farthest reach of the old world, the normal world!
It does us well, first, to see that Jerusalem really is the center, that we all measure our distance from Jesus.
Second, to know that the three old continents are all due their respect as the normal world, the ancient world, the respectable world. America has great young energy: but respect your elders!
And third, to remember that the “Americas” are one. The Europeans (including the Vatican) count us as one continent. And really, we do well to see that we are all in this together: we, the youthful nations; we, the land of the Indians and the slaves; we, who might be the future, but shouldn’t forget the past: especially the sacred history of Jerusalem, the center of the world.
How do you see America forgetting its youthfulness? What could we learn from seeing ourselves as the antipodes?