The Mother of All: A Homily for Our Lady of Guadalupe

I preached this homily at a Choral Evensong observing the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne.

She appeared in 1531, near a small village at the outskirts of Mexico City.

She appeared in the winter, when roses do not bloom. She appeared in the wild, where the powerful do not venture. She appeared to an indigenous man, a person at the margins who saw what others did not, could not see. She appeared just as she had lived and loved and labored in her earthly life—in the hidden, borderless, bracing landscapes where heaven and earth intertwine, where the wind rushes over the hillside and the angels cry ave and the dream of God is revealed, not to calculating kings, but to the wakeful wanderer. 

It is not sufficient to describe Our Lady of Guadalupe as a pious legend or a miraculous tale, for no matter what you believe about the veracity of Juan Diego’s vision of Mary in 1531, it is indisputable that she is real in the hearts and souls and prayers of millions across our continent and beyond. She is everywhere, her image burned into our consciousness, into our culture, as surely as it was onto that peasant’s cloak over 450 years ago. 

As the Psalmist says of God, so might we say of the Virgin of Guadalupe: where can I flee from your presence? We cannot, for she appears everywhere. She looks back at us from prayer cards and bumper stickers and paintings, from the pages of books, from the pages of our collective memory—even if we know nothing about her or the details of her original apparition, even if we doubt or dismiss the story, somehow we instinctively recognize her, this woman draped in stars, this woman carrying a child in her womb, this woman with dark hair and downcast eyes. 

Unlike many other Marian apparitions, there has always been something visceral about Guadalupe, something that almost transcends the structures of faith and doctrine and resonates, instead, with a more elemental and universally human need: the need to know that we have a mother who loves us. The need to know that we were born into a world that wants us. And to have somewhere to turn, someone who remembers us, someone who calls us their beloved child, even when we are no longer children. Especially when we are no longer children. 

For generations of people, Our Lady of Guadalupe has been an embodiment of that longing for the profound gentleness of heaven, particularly for those who felt estranged from the patriarchal images of God mediated through the historic colonial church. 

For the indigenous people of north and central America, who understandably might have associated images of Jesus and God the Father with the conquerers and clerics who upended their ancient ways of life, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared as something altogether different—a divine message of love and care directed to them, a messenger of grace who stood with them and for them, who could subdue the high and mighty not with a sword, but with her peaceful word, with her fecundity, with the possibility of roses blooming in the snow. 

She appeared, not just as the mother of a foreign God, but as the mother of all people, and especially the mother of the impoverished and forgotten, those original inhabitants of an old land called the New World. She imprinted herself, not on the robe of a bishop, but on the flimsy tilma of a poor man. 

And though centuries have passed, there she remains, a mother for any and all of us who find ourselves feeling poor and forgotten, those of us who still navigate the uncertain landscape of this New World that is not yet a new heaven and earth, this land with its collision of promise and deprivation, wealth and uncertainty, privilege and peril. Amid the rubble of colonialism, astride the divisions of nations and ethnicities and languages, still she stands, hands clasped, waiting, seeing, saying to us the things we do not know how to say to each other: 

This land can hold all of you, God can hold all of you, you who have been harmed, you who have done harm. You who came from afar, you who were always here. You of every color, you of every path, you of every loss, you of every dream—I can love you if you will let me, if you will give your heart into my care. 

Come to me, and let me show you the true nature of God, the God who is like a child, who is like a dove, who is like a rose climbing up from the cold, dark earth. Come to me, you who know a mother’s love, you who have lost it, you who never felt it before. Come to me, for I have come to you, and I will not leave you. 

No, we cannot flee from her presence, this Lady of Guadalupe. And thanks be to God that we cannot. Thanks be to God that she has not forsaken us, that her image endures, that she remains, still, everywhere we wander, a sign of God’s relentless desire to care for each of us, for all of us. For it is your life, too, that she carries in her womb, it is your name she remembers in her prayer, and it is your homeland that lies beneath her mantle of stars. She is God’s mother, and your mother, and ours, forever. 

Only Questions: A Good Friday Sermon

This sermon was preached on Good Friday, April 19, 2019, at Christ Episcopal Church in Alameda, CA. 

Shortly before condemning Jesus to death, Pilate asks him–and thus unknowingly asks God–a bitter, heartbreaking , fundamental question, one that humanity has likely been asking from the very beginning: “what is truth?”

He receives no answer.

There is no answer to give that could be encapsulated into words. Truth, the very embodiment of Truth, is a bruised and battered face staring back into his own face, and it is beyond articulation.

Like Pilate and everyone else who participates in the crucifixion of God Incarnate, we are deep in a mystery now, a place where words are largely inadequate, where answers are few, where only questions prevail. We must tread carefully, for this is terrifying holy ground we stand upon today, Good Friday, and we should not profane it with endless speculation.

We are at the foot of the Cross, gazing up at Jesus, who in turn gazes back at us, blood and tears streaming down his face—and in this place, tidy, insightful observations about the nature of God and clever turns of phrase about sin and forgiveness and sacrifice all dry up like chaff and blow away in the wind.

The Cross rejects every attempt to understand it fully. It is not a place for self-assured theologizing or domesticated spiritualizing. It is a raw, awful, unspeakable place in which we find ourselves.

Last night, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus told us to love one another, and we did so. We washed one another’s feet and broke bread together with the best of intentions. We perceived that this was the proper way to live, to care, to be present in God’s kingdom. And on Easter we will no doubt come back together as a people renewed and forgiven for all the times we have failed to love, returning to our senses after this day of desperation and horror, and we will recommit ourselves to the fullness of life that God offers freely in the light of resurrection.

But today we are no-place. Today we have murdered the very best of our intentions to love. We have traveled to the Place of the Skull, the place where confidence is shattered like bone. Today we stand at the farthest point from comfort, the place where Jesus, God-With-Us, He who was the smiling babe in the manger, the youth in the temple, the wise teacher on the mountain, the Holy One, cries out to the Father for some sign of presence and receives…nothing. No answer. No words.

And in that silence we know what it is to forsake and to be forsaken.

Yes, we are deep in a mystery, one so strange and terrible that any attempt to sort it out, to prod at its depths, to explain it, results in cheap, brittle platitudes.

Think about of all the things that you should never, ever say when someone has experienced a great loss in their life: things like

“It’s all part of God’s plan.”

“Everythinghappens for a reason.”

“When one door closes, another one opens.”

These are things we say to each other that are usually more about soothing our own sense of confusion and fear rather than simply being present, deeply present, to the pain of another.

And yet these trite, hollow, inadvertently callous attempts at comfort are exactly what we so often apply to our encounter with Jesus on the Cross. We want to justify this awful thing, to make sense of it, to assure ourselves that God knew what God was doing the whole time. We approach Golgotha and see the crucified Christ writhing in agony and fear, and we say, to Him, as we do to others: “everything happens for a reason! Your suffering is part of God’s plan!”

And these words are like yet more nails, hammered and stammered into the endless void of His suffering.

The Church has done this since the beginning, in various ways. It’s only human, perhaps. We don’t like sitting with questions, and we rely too much on explanations.

Some of us want to reason the Cross away as God’s clever, elegant, brutal plan to atone for our sins, to make proper restitution for our brokenness, as if the cosmos were constructed like an accounting system or a court of law.

Or, equally tempting for some of us and yet equally limiting: we confine the Cross to the realm of  human political drama, as if Jesus was nothing more than an enlightened social justice prophet murdered by “conservative” religious authorities and imperial forces—those bad, unenlightened others that of course look nothing like us. As if the Cross was merely an unfortunate byproduct of a backwards political system rather than what it actually is: the fundamental, unanswerable question at the core of all the pain which we experience and inflict upon each other.

Every time we try to reconstruct the Cross in a way that suits us, in a way that provides easy answers, in a way that excuses us from the narrative, we are simply building another instrument of torture to re-crucify that which we cannot understand.

No more of this, I ask you. No more. Lay down your easy theories of atonement that taste of sour wine; stop casting lots for your competing theologies of the Cross. For one day, let us stop trying to figure it out. Look into the face of Christ crucified and let Him be all that He is, uncertain and frightening and heart-rending, the face of Truth.

And let that wordless recognition of Truth, terrible as it may be, let it be enough today, because it is all we are given. Just as with Pilate, Jesus has no further answers for us.

It is called Good Friday because it is God’s Friday—the day in which God presents us with a mystery, a deep mystery, a Man who is on a cross for reasons so strange and intimate that they are as distant as an all-consuming black hole, and yet as close as our own breath.

And yes, we know in our hearts that there is more to the story, and that perhaps soon, very soon, we will fumble our way toward the answer of the empty tomb and the radiant joy of something entirely new. But not now. Not yet.

What is truth, we ask? Look at the Cross. It is staring us in the face, wordless and unutterable. Approach it cautiously, without certainty. Touch it if you dare; look into the void and see God staring back at you. Today, this is all we have.