Mary and the Incarnation of Hope
We have a Mary tree in our neighborhood. More accurately, we have a tree on which the image of the Virgin Mary has appeared. A little over two years ago, a car crashed into the tree, causing significant damage to both car and tree. A few months later the elderly owner of the tree was on his roof doing some work when he slipped and fell off. His neighbor across the street heard the scream and looked out the window. There standing next to the fallen man was the tree with the image of the Virgin Mary revealed in the accident-damaged trunk. The elderly man made a miraculous (after a thirty-day hospital stay) recovery, and the tree has been a place of local pilgrimage for the devout and the curious alike ever since...
We have a Mary tree in our neighborhood. More accurately, we have a tree on which the image of the Virgin Mary has appeared. A little over two years ago, a car crashed into the tree, causing significant damage to both car and tree. A few months later the elderly owner of the tree was on his roof doing some work when he slipped and fell off. His neighbor across the street heard the scream and looked out the window. There standing next to the fallen man was the tree with the image of the Virgin Mary revealed in the accident-damaged trunk. The elderly man made a miraculous (after a thirty-day hospital stay) recovery, and the tree has been a place of local pilgrimage for the devout and the curious alike ever since.
It has become such an attraction that I take my (usually Lutheran) out-of-town friends to see the image when they visit. The response is more often than not one of suspicion or outright condescension for those who view the image as somehow being indicative of the presence of God in an extraordinary way. For me the image has a deeper meaning. When I look at it I cannot help but see not just an image of the Virgin Mary, but an image of the Virgin as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In 1531, Our Lady of Guadalupe was reported to have appeared to a young native Mexican named Juan Diego, and is attributed in no small part with the conversion of the native peoples to Catholicism. Long a cultural symbol of Mexican pride, during my college years the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe became an important personal symbol of the pro-life movement. She was paraded at the head of marches for life and carried in front of abortion clinics or wherever else groups would picket. She became representative of the miraculous intervention that is needed by God to prevent the cruelty of the magnitude of the death of innocent children. Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests For Life describes the connection in this way:
Some nine million Aztecs were converted to Christ by the power of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. At that time, the Aztec peoples were practicing human sacrifice. As a result of the image’s presence among the people, their hearts were converted to the true God and the practice of human sacrifice was abolished. A key theological dynamic operating here is that Our Lady turned the Aztecs from a worldview of despair to one of hope, from a conviction that the gods were against them to a conviction that God was so much for them that He became one of them.1
It was also during my college years that I first personally came into direct contact with a Marian apparition that could be considered miraculous. During Easter of 1994, an icon of the Virgin Mary on the iconostasis of St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Mt. Cicero, Illinois, began weeping. With an Orthodox friend, I made my way over to the church and joined the line of believers and doubters alike—all hoping to get a glimpse of something. Different folks looking for different answers, but both coming to the same place for some type of validation for our presuppositions.
Raised with a healthy dose of Lutheran skepticism, I looked for wires, for oils, for a reason to disbelieve. Mingled in my head, however, with voices of doubt and cynicism, was the quiet voice of the parish priest that somehow managed to draw me in over the noise of the crowd. I stopped to listen to his interview with the local news. He didn’t try to sell anything. He didn’t even invite anyone to come and visit. He simply said, “In the Orthodox church we are used to miracles. This is no more spectacular for us than the miracle of Christ’s presence at the altar each Sunday.”
And so when Roman Catholic neighbors would come up to me and ask what I thought about our miraculous tree, disappointed that their own parish priests downplayed it, I had my answer, one that had to be incarnational. There is no reason why God could not use accidents to bring blessing to our neighborhood. We have a God of incarnation—a God of real presence.”
Like iconography itself, all miracles are an extension of incarnational theology, which is why it is troubling to me that so many Lutherans like me are trained almost from birth to be skeptical about anything mysterious that cannot be explained by rational theology. It is almost as if the classical dogmatic definition of the means of grace has become proscriptive rather than descriptive. That same skepticism, which drove me to Mt. Cicero, drives far too many of our encounters with the divine. Yes, there is a danger in looking for God solely in the spectacular. But Lutheranism’s greater danger seems to be in denying that God does anything spectacular at all.
At the end of the street on which the tree stands is a city hospital that performs abortions. That same denial of God’s miraculous working in this world, that same barren worldview that neuters God’s active presence in the world, looks down on the Mary tree from a sterile, anti-incarnational multiplex that towers over the tree. It mocks it with its anti-incarnational language: “unplanned pregnancy,” “unwanted child,” “population control,” “birth control.” This contraceptive mentality is at its heart anti-incarnational, in that it attempts to deny the incarnation of humans who are created in the very image and likeness of God.
The didactic arguments can indeed be persuasive. No child should be unwanted. The earth can’t sustain the population explosion. But the problem with the didactic arguments is that they are sterile and don’t account for the incarnation which changes everything. For all of the billions of dollars spent in the past decades combating the growth of world population, there is still an endless number of places in the world where babies are abandoned and children die of hunger. Billions that could have been spent on working to actually improve living conditions for the poor and billions that could have been spent on providing for a more equitable distribution of resources to the world’s poor have instead been squandered in an irrational zero-sum game that has no room for a miraculous incarnation.
When Juan Diego told his Bishop of his miraculous encounter with the Virgin Mary, the Bishop asked for proof. At the Virgin’s direction, Juan Diego went and found roses that should not have been growing in the dead of winter. With the roses gathered, Juan Diego used his poncho to carry them to his Bishop. When he took off his poncho to reveal the miraculous roses, what is known today as the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was seen embedded in the poncho. Fr. Pavone describes the theological significance of the image.
Our Lady is pregnant, carrying the Son of God in her womb. Her head is bowed in homage, indicating that she is not the Goddess, but rather the one who bears and at the same time worships the one true God… The universe into which Our Lady of Guadalupe invites us is no longer an unstable universe. God clearly reveals Himself as the only God, who is and shares both love and life. This truth brings hope. There is no longer need for human sacrifice, whether on pagan altars or in abortion clinics, because both the present and the future are in the hands of a God who is “God with us.”2
An incarnational theology is a theology of hope. It is why the “seamless garment” theology of life was foundational to Roman Catholic theologians long before Paul vi and Humanae Vitae gave it official articulation. After he arrived as a Jesuit missionary in 1947, Thomas J. Feeney, the first Roman Catholic bishop in the Marshall Islands, wrote a letter home describing why the church was working so hard not just to evangelize but to form individuals with skills that would serve them into the future. His words prophetically outlined the choice that “civilized society” had before it. The results of this choice are still being played out in the streets, hospitals and government agencies of nations around the world today.
The more vital and more civilizing effects of a self-sufficiency program become nothing sort of revolutionary when applied as the solution to the problem of increasing birthrates… [This self-sufficiency] program can sustain a legitimately increasing birthrate just as automatically as the noisome theory of artificial control, based on a barnyard conception of human life and dignity, has to date consistently fouled it. History, economic and otherwise, records, no single exception to the inexorable law that one can not abuse nature or nature’s God with impunity.3
It has always been a great source of disappointment to me that the ELCA, which has more often than not been an articulate voice for social justice, has failed to speak clearly on behalf of pro-life theology which affirms the incarnational underpinnings of all social justice work. Despite recognizing that issues of social justice cannot be separated from abortion and that in many ways abortion is a socially unjust act,4 the ELCA's social statement on abortion refuses to accord equal protection to unborn children based on the circumstance of their conception or their health in the womb.5 Conversely, the LCMS has consistently maintained a pro-life stance regarding abortion and other bio-ethical issues,6 but has lagged behind the ELCA in institutionally advocating for social justice causes that are intrinsically connected to a theology of incarnation.
Pro-life author and social justice advocate John Cavanaugh O’Keefe describes the important interconnectedness of the abortion and social justice in this way.
The teaching of the Church on family life is as balanced as an icon of the Holy Family. To protect the dignity of each individual as a child of God, we must struggle for personal morality and also for social justice. Love for the child leads us to defend motherhood as a noble vocation, and also to assert the right to wages and working conditions that take the family into account.7
All of this is why the Virgin Mary Tree—the Our Lady of Guadalupe Tree in my neighborhood—means so much to me. It is why I have images of the Blessed Virgin Mary in my house, in my office, and in my church. For in a way that is at once ordinary and miraculous, Christ’s incarnation stands as a silent reminder of the audacity of a people who hope and God who is not content to sit by and watch his people suffer in vain.
1. www.priestsforlife.org/articles/guadalupeandabortion.htm. Accessed January 5, 2008.
3. Thomas J. Feeney, Letters From Likiep (New York: Pandick Press, 1951), 49–50.
4. “In keeping with our commitment to become communities that are truly life-affirming, this church challenges the following life-degrading attitudes that permeate the prevailing culture and may contribute to the high incidence of abortion: messages in the media and elsewhere that encourage irresponsible sexual activity; materialism, individualism, and excessive concern for self-interest; the desire for ‘perfect’ children, and treating those who are not as if they were ‘disposable’; attitudes and practices that are inhospitable to children and to the women who bear them; low regard of human life, especially the lives of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans, and of many women and children who are poor.” ELCA Social Statement on Abortion III.9.
5. Ibid. See especially section IV.b where the value of the life of the child is determined in succession by the willingness of the parents to participate in the sexual activity, the access of the parents to contraception, and the physical health of the unborn child!
6. For example, Resolution 6-02 from the 2007 LCMS convention where stem cell research is affirmed, but embryonic stem cell research is opposed.
7. Cavanaugh O’Keefe’s writings and work as an advisor for my pro-life group were foundational in shaping my understanding of the connection between abortion and social justice. This quote is taken from his essay “Rights of Workers: An Under-appreciated Part of Catholic Social Teaching.” www.theuniversitycourse.com/V,5,1-28-2000/shorttakes.htm. Accessed January 5, 2008.