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December 12, 2007
At St. Clement's, the children and I would hit the pavement on this day with an armful of long-stemmed roses. An icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe went before us as we visited shop after shop, giving a rose to each shop owner on 46th street and around the corner on Tenth Avenue. If we had enough roses, we gave them to passersby, too, and to police officers and horse-drawn cab drivers.

The year was 1531. Juan Diego, who lived in poverty on the edge of the city he would have called Tenochtitlan -- we know it now as Mexico City -- was on his way to Mass. Suddenly he saw a beautiful lady, her entire body surrounded by a halo of light. Songbirds sang as he gazed at her, and she told him that she was Mary -- "entirely and ever Virgin" was how she put it -- and that she was there to let the world know that she was the protectress "of all folk of every kind," which was her tactful way of acknowledging his poverty and his indigenous ancestry. Then she told him that she wanted a temple built in her honor right at that very spot, where a temple to the Aztec goddess Tonatzin had once stood.

This was an odd request to make of a poor man. Juan Diego went right to the Spanish bishop, who dismissed his report. So he went back to find the Virgin and ask her please to find a more prominent person for this work. But no one else would do. Back and forth between the bishop and the Blessed Mother went poor Juan, annoying the former and pleading with the latter to give him some sign that the prelate would credit. On his fourth visit, Mary obliged: she bade him hold out the skirt of his smock while she placed hundreds of picked spring flowers into it. Now the bishop would believe him, and indeed, he did: not only did an enormous pile of fresh out-of-season flowers tumble from the peasant's smock onto the bishop's elegant tiled floor, but then Mary's portrait miraculously appeared on the smock, big as life, imprinted on the rough fabric. What Juan wore home that December day is not known, but the portrait on his threadbare smock still hangs in the Basilica of Guadalupe.

When they say "La Virgen" in Mexico, it is this vision of Mary they mean. La virgen de Guadalupe: she wears a robe spangled with stars, and she is entirely surrounded by a golden nimbus. She usually has black ribbons at her wrists: a sign of her pregnancy. Juan Diego is often pictured at her feet, a small brown man venerating the Queen of Heaven, with whom he has something important in common: usually, Mary is also pictured as dark-skinned. She not only loves the poor and those who don't count for much in the world's eyes, she is one of them.

I have seen pictures of the Holy Family in which they were all Chinese. I have seen images of them in which they were all African. I have seen a woodcut of Jesus in a breadline, waiting with other homeless people for something to eat. I have seen a Native American Jesus, swaddled on a board on his mother's back. I have seen a black Jesus, lynched on a tree instead of on a cross. I have seen a woman nailed there -- "Christa" was the name the artist gave his wooden sculpture; years ago, it raised quite a ruckus when it was hung at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Well, which Christ is the right one? Which Mary? How could this dark-skinned Virgin be the Mother of the Christ? A Chinese Mary? How can this be?!? Shouldn't she be more -- well, Flemish?

Art and story don't just show us what happened. They don't just reproduce what our eyes see -- a photocopier does that, and it's just a machine. Art and story tell a layered truth, a truth well beyond the who-what-when-where-how of simple reporting. They take something we think we know and make it ours in a way we cannot miss, and they make us do some of the work involved. And faith does the same thing: we're not in this journey to Christ just to get the right answer. There is much more to the story of the Incarnation than just what happened.

Which is a darned good thing, since none of us were there.
This is as good a place as any to remind you that my latest book, Mary and Her Miracle -- which also takes certain, um, liberties -- is available online from the Farm's bookstore for Christmas delivery, as well as on,, etc. There will be a reading and signing of Mary at The Raconteur Bookstore in Metuchen, NJ this Sunday, December 16th from 1pm to 3pm. Visit or telephone 732-906-0009.
The Farm bookstore is at
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