The most recently released Bob Dylan album [Tell Tale Signs] has a song on it I’ve wanted to hear since word of its existence spread early in this decade. It’s called “Red River Shore”, and it was recorded for but left out of Dylan’s 2001 disc, Time Out Of Mind. “Red River Shore” is a song about human pain, disappointment, and longing. In the final stanza, the song’s speaker tells of “a man full of sorrow and strife” who could bring dead people “on back to life”. In passing he wonders aloud about this man in these words:
Well I don't know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
This verse seems to be a description of Jesus by a man who has only heard a rumor about him. The phrase that continues to stick with me as I think about “Red River Shore” is those lines, “Well I don't know what kind of language he used / Or if they do that kind of thing anymore.” Even as he tries to imagine someone like Jesus, the man in this song wonders first about what kind of language he used. We all, it seems, want to hear someone talk to us (even about hard things) in words we can understand.
“Let it be with me according to your word.” That’s what Mary said to Gabriel when she was told about the noble but hard ministry God had appointed for her. “Let it be with me according to your word” might also best describe the interaction between the Virgin of Guadalupe and Juan Diego on the hill Tepayac at her apparition on December 9, 1531. The Virgin spoke to Juan Diego in his native language, Nahuatl, asking that a church be built on this hill in her honor. Juan Diego ran to tell the courtly Spanish bishop, Juan de Zumarraga, about the vision, and the bishop asked for a sign that he could recognize, which is itself a kind of language. Juan Diego returned to the hill and the Virgin told him to pick the flowers, which turned out to be the finest springtime Castilian roses growing in early winter. More than that, when Juan Diego put those roses in his tilma, they left the imprint of the Virgin’s visage on the inside of his cloak.
“Let it be with me according to your word.” The Virgin spoke in Nahuatl to Juan Diego and in the language of Catholic symbols to Bishop de Zumárraga. In response to the hunger which Bob Dylan expresses for someone to talk to us of life and love in a language we can understand, we have a story about miraculous cross-cultural communication, a kind of Renaissance Mexico version of Pentecost. No wonder the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe has become Mexico’s national celebration of religious and cultural identity. Cynics might see this story as an exercise in cultural imperialism, the Roman church appropriating the images and language of Aztec culture on which to overlay Christian teachings. But a more hospitable reading of the story would suggest that this legend exemplifies what Christians have done in every age and setting—that is, to appropriate the idioms of indigenous culture to give local expression to the Gospel. Strictly speaking, Christianity has no culture at all outside of the local ones it has come to inhabit. When is the last time you heard Aramaic spoken in church?
“Let it be with me according to your word.” All of us long for a connection with the ultimate, and all of us long for that connection to be made in words and images we can understand. The task of the Christian community has always been to find ways to live out the story of Jesus in words and images that people can relate to. That we tend to get wedded to particular cultural expressions of Christianity—the northern European idea of snow at Christmas or lilies at Easter, the Mexican fiesta of an Aztec Virgin—is a sign that we, as particular finite beings inhabit particular cultures. The grace in all of this is that God comes to meet us where we are—on a hilltop in Galilee, in an inner city homeless shelter, on a mountain in Mexico.
These past few weeks I’ve been reading a book of essays by a British art critic and novelist named John Berger. In his book The Shape of a Pocket, there is an essay about the French painter, Theodore Gericault, an artist who spent the final years of his life painting portraits of the inmates of a Paris psychiatric hospital. Here is what Berger says about these portraits:
Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous. The desolation lies there, not in the facts. . . . In such gaps people get lost, and in such gaps people go mad. --John Berger, “A Man with Tousled Hair” [Géricault] in The Shape of a Pocket, p. 176
Like the line about Jesus’s language in Bob Dylan’s song, something about these sentences in Berger’s essay leapt out at me and has stayed in my consciousness over the past several weeks. There is an enormous gap between the “experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet” and “the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life.” It’s in this gap between experience and narrative that so many folks in the world experience life as loneliness, oppression, loss, guilt, pain. The master narrative of our culture, until recently, has been that everybody (at least everybody who matters) is doing all right. If you weren’t doing all right—if you were poor or depressed or sick or grieving—then there was something wrong with you. As my late friend and former teacher John Snow of EDS used to say, the dominant myth of American life is Social Darwinism. If the idea of “survival of the fittest” doesn’t work for you, then the master narrative no longer explains your experience. Presto, you fall into that gap.
Taken in this light, it seems to me that one way of understanding what happens in the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, what happens on that hillside Tepayac, what happens when the Virgin speaks to Juan Diego in Nahuatl and to Juan de Zumarraga in roses—what happens is that God meets and addresses us in that gap. To the man singing of grief and loss, God speaks in the language of the here and now; to the Aztec peasant and the courtly Spaniard, God speaks in the particular language appropriate to the head and the heart. It’s no wonder that Mexicans have made the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe their national holiday: at its center it’s a celebration of the gracious and innumerable ways in which God comes out of Godself to meet us, to address us in that gap between experience and narrative.
I became a Christian when I was in college, and the reason I became a Christian, frankly, was that in the dark days of 1968—political assassinations, riots in the cities, an intractable war in Vietnam, escalating racial tensions in our nation—for me the prevailing narrative accounting for our shared experience of pain did nothing to explain that experience to me. It was only as I was addressed by the Gospel, a narrative that does explain my and our experience more than any social doctrine or political philosophy can—it was only as I heard the Gospel addressing me in my own culture and language that I heard a narrative which closed the gap between my experience and our national mythology, it was only then that I was addressed by God in that gap and called out of it into a new understanding of myself and the world. For me, Christianity’s greatest gift was that it made me cease to feel crazy. A God who could come among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was a God who made sense to me, and still does.
What I’ve described as my own experience of conversion is, I believe, something like what happened to Juan Diego on that hillside: living in the gap between experience and public narrative, Juan Diego was met and loved by God in the person of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and henceforth he and his nation had a new story by which to make sense of life in all its height and depth, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain. This festival is important then precisely because, as a cultural festival, it reminds us that God’s primary ministry to us in the here and now is a narrative which makes sense of our experience. Unlike all the bad ideas afloat in our world right now, the Gospel is trustworthy and it makes sense. It is what God offers us, and what we offer the world.
As we gather this morning to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe, let us give thanks for the various ways, both in Mexican and American cultures, in relationships and experiences of grace, God steps in and pulls us out of that gap. God spoke to Juan Diego and Juan de Zumarraga in words and images that made sense of their experience. That was the Virgin’s gift to them then, and the corresponding grace and power to do that for the women and children and men in our lives is God’s great gift to us today. As we gather around Jesus’s table, let’s give thanks both for the Virgin’s witness and our calling to make her presence and the presence of the One who sent her real in the lives of the people we touch. Amen.