A few weeks ago I was preaching on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12), and I think my message also resonates on this Epiphany Sunday, when we celebrate the manifestation of Christ to non-Jews (and thus to us). Here’s the message:
When European adventurers like Columbus discovered what they called the “new world” it raised a theological question: Did the people they met (the native peoples of the Americas) have souls? It might seem odd even to ask that, but there were two hidden issues. First, people were at that time so accustomed to the equation “Christian = European,” that they couldn’t see beyond their cultural blinders. (The rich history of non-European Christianity was not widely known, and even the Greek Church was made up of “people like us.”) Second, there was a benefit – political and economic – if the new-world peoples did not have souls: Then they could be exploited and even enslaved with a clear conscience.
Our Church from the start, through its teachers and its missionaries, insisted that the people of the Americas were no less human than anyone else: they had souls, eternal destinies, and redemption through Christ. (That didn’t much slow down the exploitation and enslavement, tragically.) But there was – and in some ways exists until today – a sense of “two classes of people” depending on heritage and skin color. You don’t need to ask which was presumed to belong on top.
Thus the appearance in 1531 of the Blessed Virgin to a native Mexican peasant – Juan Diego – was understood by the native peoples as an affirmation of their importance: To Mary they were not second-class! And thus the feast has continued to resonate with the native peoples of the Americas in ways it seems not to for those of European descent.
This would be just a nice bit of history if it weren’t for the fact that the native peoples of the Americas are still, and in some ways now increasingly, thought of by too many people as second-class human beings. The recent presidential race seems to have given an opening and (for some) “respectability” for the expression of that bias. More often the bias shows itself unwittingly: More than a few Catholic churches have, when experiencing an influx of Spanish-speaking parishioners, “accommodated” them by holding Mass in Spanish; but in the auditorium, rather than in the main church.
The appearance of the Blessed Virgin held the same message that today’s feast does: no culture, ethnic group, language group, or other segment of humanity is closer to God than any other. To believe or act as if one’s own group has a privileged claim is contrary to the Gospel, in which “the last shall be first.”
It may well be that the Gospel perspective (and that actions that flow from it) will be rejected as the wider culture becomes less Christian. That makes it more important than ever for us to learn from our Church, in its teaching and in its feasts. Happy Epiphany! And, until next week, peace.