From our first reading: “Many nations shall join themselves to the LORD on that day, and they shall be his people, and he will dwell among you” (Zech 2:15)
When I was in Kenya I remember the first time I saw local artwork portraying Jesus, Mary, the Holy Family. The images were black people that looked like the people among whom I lived. Of course I had grown up with same images – only the faces were white. I can remember thinking of seeing the Kenyan images… “makes sense.” It made sense, because if we thought about it we all answer that Jesus was of Middle eastern features. But at the same time, we all want to see our identity in the images of Jesus, Mary, the Holy Family, the saints, and all those things that are icons of our faith.
Every once in a while I encounter an image of our Lady of Guadalupe. It is not the portrayal of an indigenous, dark-skinned woman that the people of Mexico and Mexican descent call la Morenita. Her garments and traditional symbols are those of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but her face and her hands are white. A beautiful woman, without a doubt, yet not the image that instilled hope in many at the time of la conquista; the indigenous lady who has sustained for centuries countless people oppressed because of the color of their skin and their cultural background; the dark-skinned woman that reminded humanity that every person, without exception, is mediation of God’s divine presence.
We could ask ourselves, “What is the big deal?” Artists often avail themselves of certain freedoms in their work to expand the imagination and invite us to consider fresher perspectives about a given reality. From that standpoint, there are depictions of Our Lady of Guadalupe in murals and street art. The work of Yolanda Lopez portrays Our Lady of Guadalupe performing everyday activities such as sowing and running. In practically all such depictions, however, she retains her mestiza face. While there is always room for artistic freedom and creativity, depicting our Lady of Guadalupe demands that we honor such history, symbolism, and interpretive traditions. The same is true: “Many nations shall join themselves to the LORD on that day, and they shall be his people, and he will dwell among you”
- Our Lady of Sheshan – China
- Our Lady of Akita – Japan
- Our Lady of La Vang – Vietnam
- Our Lady of Sufanieh – Syria
- Our Lady of Velankanni – India
- Lady of Kibeho – Rwanda
In doing so, we affirm not only the theological meaning of the icon as a representation of the Virgin Mary and as a sign of divine presence in history but also the embodied realities of the people who see themselves represented in it.
But this day we celebrate the divine gift to the people of Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe, who always points us to her Son and us the same as she told the servants at the wedding in Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)
Image credit: photograph at the Cathedral of Los Angeles