Men from the East Bearing Gifts

December 28, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The following is the revision of an article I wrote just after the bombing of the World Trade Center. I offer it in honor of the recent tenth anniversary of that bombing, and of the feast of the Holy Innocents which is celebrated today.

One problem with writing for periodicals is lag time. Back in 2001, an editor asked me to write an article about Christmas: ho, ho, ho. But the request came on October 11, 2001, when my mind was filled with bombed skyscrapers and the fear of anthrax.

In such a conundrum, it helps to remember that the incompatibility between Christmas and death is a consumerist construct. Fundamental to the Christian tradition is the understanding that Christmas and Easter are different manifestations of the same mystery. Jesus himself may have escaped Herod, but those other Jewish babies did not. The liturgical calendar keeps them out of sight for a few days, but ultimately, there’s no separating life and death.

Even the kings themselves, those wise men from the East, are implicated in this part-ho-ho, part-horror story.  In Matthew’s rendering of it we learn not only that these men brought gifts with them but what those gifts were: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.  Gold and frankincense fit nicely with the spirit of the season, thank you very much, but myrrh is another matter.  John the Evangelist makes the connection clear when he writes of Jesus’ burial: “So (Joseph of Arimathea) came and took away his body.  Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight”  (19:38-39).

A week or so after the September 11 attacks, at the end of an interview, NPR’s Terry Gross asked the writer Karen Armstrong if she had any last thoughts to leave with the audience.  Armstrong replied that although people might not appreciate her approach immediately, eventually she hoped they would come to think of the bombings as a revelation.  If we consider the suicide bombers to be our own version of men from the East bearing gifts, what the nature of that revelation might be becomes clearer.  We are more interested in the gold and the incense, but the myrrh is under the tree too.

“Years ago Thomas Berry, the cosmological prophet, remarked in a lecture at Grailville, in Loveland, Ohio, that Christianity had become preoccupied with the crucifixion in the 14th century, when the Black Plague killed one European out of every three.  I took him to mean that this preoccupation was some sort of distortion; only years later did I realize that the need of many of us 70s liberal Catholics to distance ourselves from the morbidity of the cross was another form of distortion, or rather, another moment in the centuries-long Christian oscillation between resisting the cross and embracing it.

During the heydays of the women’s movement, Christian feminists struggled with the meaning of the cross. In Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today, the Canadian feminist theologian Cynthia Crysdale rejects the Anselmian argument that God, like an offended medieval warlord, required the death of Jesus as retribution for sin.  But she argues that this is not the only possible interpretation of the cross.  For Crysdale, “embracing travail” means struggling, along with Jesus, against the evil that is part of human existence, not from a desire to sacrifice our selves, but to heal and free those very selves.  In Tracing the Sign of the Cross, I explore the writings of four post-war American Catholics who know very well that there is no escaping loss, even if our financial resources exceed those of our immigrant forebears.  Embracing the death of Jesus is one way to work through those losses to new hope and understanding.

In many respects, I am a New Yorker.  My parents began taking me from Philadelphia to Manhattan as a small child, sharing with me their modernist passion for the bright lights and the big city.  I love every minute of the fifteen years I have lived in New York, identifying with its energy and relishing the sense that everything I want is a subway ride away.  During our decade in Berkeley, when I tried I try to explain my homesickness to my California colleagues, I invariably spoke of my longing for skyscrapers.

The World Trade Center was like a Christmas tree, a tall, glittering fantasy of promise and possibility.  I spent one of the happiest afternoons of my life there, at The Windows on the World, the famous restaurant at the top of World Trade Tower #1, celebrating my graduation from seminary with my family, my future husband, and some of my closest friends.

But after 9/11, the World Trade Center didn’t look like a Christmas tree any more.  The shards of building that were left standing looked more like a severe, modernist crucifix with its jagged ribs piercing the sky. Of course, another skyscraper will soon be completed near the place where the Golgotha-like remains of the previous towers once stood. And who knows?  I may even come to love it.  But I will never love it as optimistically as I did its predecessors.  .

Again this year, a few miles north of Ground Zero, a huge Christmas tree is glowing in Rockefeller Plaza, and people like me are looking up at it, singing carols.  Together these men and women will recreate an image of peace and harmony, of new birth, and the promise of salvation.  But if they get as far as Balthazar’s verse of “We Three Kings,” they will remember something else, something 9/11 taught us all too well:

“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume

Breathes a life of gathering gloom.

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying

Sealed in a stone cold tomb.”

Perhaps 9/11 has made us better able than we once were to hold the two parts of the Christmas mystery together in our hearts.

A longer version of this article appeared in the December 2001-February 2002 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeast Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.


Crossing Borders with the Virgin Mary

December 14, 2011 at 11:29 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

As we continue along the road from the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the feast of Mary giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, I share a review of another book about the connections between Mary in the US and in Mexico,  American Madonna: Crossing Borders with the Virgin Mary by Deirdre Cornell.

In her first book, A Priceless View, Grail member Deirdre Cornell returns to her childhood home, Newburgh, NY, to share the life of the burgeoning migrant community there. But by the last few pages, she knows that she will leave. And her prediction is fulfilled: in 2004, Deirdre and her husband Kenney and three children move to rural Oaxaca, Mexico, as Maryknoll lay missioners, to deepen their understanding of the migrant cultures surrounding them in upstate New York. In American Madonna, Deirdre welcomes us into that experience.

At the heart of Deirdre’s reflections is Mary, the Mother of God. Here in the U.S., what with women’s liberation and the assimilation of white ethnic Catholics into the American middle class, devotion to the ostensibly sweet, passive Virgin Mary would seem a thing of the past. Yet as Deirdre observes, pilgrimages to sites of Marian apparitions around the world have mushroomed in the modern period, while the Madonna, bearing the marks of her various local inculturations, helps huge numbers of Latin American migrants in their journeys across the border to a new life in the North. Indeed, as Deirdre makes clear, the Virgin Mary is an ideal patroness for our globalized age, crossing borders during her lifetime between Israel and Egypt, and in her Assumption, between earth and heaven, even as she has accompanied travelers, missionaries and migrants across borders over the centuries.

Deirdre organizes American Madonna around three different manifestations of Mary: the Virgin of Solitude, the mourning Mother at the foot of the cross who watches over the capital of the southeastern Mexican province of Oaxaca; Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose apparition to St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in 1532 marks the beginning of the inculturation of Christianity among the indigenous peoples of Mexico; and my own particular favorite, Our Lady of Juquila, whose diminutive triangular figure has protected hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at her shrine on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca since 1719. In all cases, the Madonna crosses borders with her devotés, whether they are the Spanish missionaries who brought her with them to the Americas, the pilgrims journeying over hazardous terrain to reach her, or the migrants who bear her north and sometimes return home to her motherly embrace.

It would be a pity for you to conclude from this that American Madonna is a theological study of the Virgin Mary, however.  It is that, in part, but it is also much more. Indeed, what makes this book a wonderful read is the deftness with which Deirdre weaves together the multiple strands comprising the reality of the Madonna. The lives of Mexicans encountered on both sides of the border comprise one such strand; the history of the various Marian apparitions and the communities they inhabit is another. A third is the complex figure of the Virgin herself, her ancient history, her sexist appropriations, the protection and liberation she bestows on her followers. Yet another is the anthropology of pilgrimage and community, rendered accessible by clear writing.

And pulling it all together is the lyric voice of the author herself, from the wonderful portrayal, in the first chapter, of her own journey away from and back to Mary, to the traditional benedición with which her Oaxacan neighbors send her and her family back to the US at the conclusion. Indeed, it becomes clear as one drinks in this book that the “American Madonna” of the title is as much the mother who brings her high-risk twins to term in the middle of her time in Mexico as it is the Madonna with whom she crosses and re-crosses borders throughout.  Those of us still inclined to wonder how the Virgin Mary can inspire communities and individuals to resist their oppression have only to read Deirdre’s mesmerizing connection of the bonding process between mother and child–in this case, her own–with the solidarity engendered by devotion to the Virgin Mary in Oaxaca. As she asks, “Can we from the dominant culture catch new glimpses of our mother–even when she does not look like us–in images that originated beyond our borders?

(This review appeared originally in Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.)

Guadalupe in New York

December 12, 2011 at 11:41 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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In honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast is celebrated today, I share with you below my review of Guadalupe in New Yorkthe splendid book by my friend Alyshia Gálvez. Gálvez is a member of the faculty at Lehman College here in New York and a rising star in Latin American studies.

For a lot of people, “globalization” is something smooth and shiny that makes better iPhones available.  For others, though, it’s an experience of displacement and being categorized as less than human.

In Guadalupe in New York, anthropologist Alyshia Gálvez zeroes in on one group strongly impacted by “globalization,” undocumented Mexican immigrants in New York City. Throughout the twentieth century, Latino New York was primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican, but since 1990, increasing numbers of Mexican immigrants have joined the mix. Some estimates put the current Mexican population of the city at 500,000. Up to half of these new New Yorkers are undocumented.

Guadalupe in New York conveys effectively the difficult situation of undocumented Mexican immigrants in New York, caught as they are between economic crises in Mexico and the increasing demonization of the immigrant labor needed to make the US function.   But primarily, Guadalupe in New York shows the ways in which devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe transforms the experience of undocumented Mexicans, instilling in them a sense of human dignity and of a trans-juridical, even cosmic, citizenship.

The subjects of Gálvez’s investigation are members of two related Mexican immigrant groups, the comités Guadalupanos, confraternal organizations based in Catholic parishes across the city and their umbrella organization, the Asociación Tepeyac.  Fundamental  to both is Guadalupanismo, devotion to Mary the Mother of God as she appeared to an indigenous Mexican convert,  Juan Diego, on the hill of Tepeyac, in the northern section of what is now Mexico City, in 1531.

Devotion to Guadalupe is a central aspect of Mexican culture.  But the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe is particularly associated with the accordance of a new dignity to indigenous Mexicans after the Spanish conquest. Guadalupe herself appeared as an indigenous woman, wearing colors, jewels and other unambiguous markers of local Nahuatl tradition. This in turn makes her a particularly apt bearer of a new sense of human dignity for undocumented Mexicans in the US.

Gálvez’s ethnographic study focuses particularly on several aspects of Guadalupanismo in New York. The best known of these is the annual torch run, in which a torch is carried by Guadalupan devotés from the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, across the Mexico/US border, and through the United States, arriving on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Patrick’s, the Roman Catholic cathedral in Manhattan. As a highly public event, the torch run is perhaps the most confrontational of the three devotional actions examined in Guadalupe in New York.  By crossing the border and publicly proclaiming their existence,  participants in and coordinators of the torch run assert “an alternative definition of citizenship: one not arbitrarily constrained by borders…(but) premised on a very particular kind of Catholic humanism articulated through Guadalupan devotion.”

A second devotion is the celebration of the Viacrucis, the way of the cross, by comités in the various New York parishes, and by comités working together on the Asociación Tepeyac’s city-wide Viacrucis del Inmigrante each Good Friday. While parish celebrations of the Viacrucis vary somewhat, with more emphasis on the social resonances of Jesus’ suffering in some parishes than others, by and large Gálvez finds that in these Guadalupan celebrations, “the traditional script describing Jesus Christ’s path is overlaid with a new script, comparing his trails at each of the stations of the cross to the humiliations and injustices suffered by immigrants.” This overlay is especially evident in the Good Friday city-wide Viacrucis del Inmigrante which begins at the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Services and then winds its way around the financial district of lower Manhattan. Throughout the procession the “Roman” soldiers scream at Jesus , “Camina, camina, ilegal!” (“Walk, walk, illegal!”)

The  third Guadalupan devotion Gálvez studies is La Misión Guadalupana, in which members of a comité  carry a figure, often a statue, of the Virgin of Guadalupe from one home to the next.  In this devotion Mexican immigrant families are welcomed by Guadalupe and invited to participate in the comité or renew their commitment.  Because the misión Guadalupana is a much smaller and quieter devotional practice than the two described above, it’s possible to imagine them dropping under the radar altogether. But Gálvez demonstrates that they are fundamental to the formation of the Guadalupan community that in turn enables undocumented Mexican immigrants in New York to develop a new more deeply human sense of citizenship.

In making this argument, that for undocumented Mexican immigrants in New York devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe is integral to the formation of a sense of dignity and self worth beyond contemporary desiccated definitions of citizenship, Alyshia Gálvez moves well beyond the understanding of religion that was fundamental to western social science in the second half of the twentieth century.  According to that understanding, religious beliefs and practices distracted human beings from contending with the really-real—economics, politics, even biology. Members of religio-ethnic groups, as they became assimilated into advanced democratic societies, were expected to shed their quaint devotional and organizational customs, learn  civil religion, become secularized. By the end of the twentieth century, and especially since 9/11, increasing numbers of scholars have been forced to acknowledge that this scenario never adequately represented the complexity of human experience. In works like Guadalupe in New York, this long-overdue recognition comes into its own.

(A longer version of this review appeared in The Living Pulpit, Vol 19, No 1, [Jan-March 2010] 30-31.)

Comment Period on New York Fracking Document Extended

December 2, 2011 at 10:02 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Apologies to readers who are not from New York. This will be my last post about fracking in New York state for quite a while, I promise.

For readers from New York who may have read my last post, “And Jesus said,’Don’t frack,'” I’m pleased to report that New York has extended until January  11 the opportunity to comment on the Draft SGEIS document. This, I’m told, is a good sign; we are having some impact.

In addition to following the suggestions in my previous post on how to comment on SGEIS, you can also send a letter to Governor Cuomo and to the NY DEC commissioner through the webpage of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, an impressive activist group.

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