This week we celebrate commemorations that, while representing very different cultures, tell the same story of Incarnation—of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. They tell of how God comes to us in the poor and ordinary and brings light into darkness.
These two celebrations are Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, and Santa Lucia on December 13. One is a popular feast in Mexico and the other is popular among Scandinavians.
But I find the way the stories both show how God comes to us to be very similar.
In the 16th century, a poor Indian named Cuauhtlatohuac who was baptized and given the name Juan Diego lived in a small village near Mexico City. One day as he was walking he heard beautiful music and in a radiant cloud saw a vision of an Indian maiden dressed like an Aztec princess. She spoke in his native Nahuatl. She told him she was the Virgin Mary.
It was not the conquistadors or the priests and missionaries who turned the conquered native people of Mexico to Christ.
It was the appearance of the Virgin Mary, dressed as an Aztec princess appearing to a Native peasant and speaking his language, which showed the people that somewhere hidden in the arrogance of the religion of their invaders, there was a loving Christ who came to save the least of these.
The story of Santa Lucia begins much earlier and farther away than Scandinavia. It begins with Lucy, who lived in Sicily during the late third century who was a follower of this new strange sect called Christians.
Lucy lived in a time when it was dangerous to be a Christian. Lucy did not follow the civic popular religion of the time. She didn’t do what was expected of religious young women in 3rd century Rome, which was to marry in order to solidify her family fortune.
Lucy wanted to follow Christ and give her fortune to the poor. For that, she was put to death.
Several centuries later in the ninth century, missionaries came to Sweden to tell the pagans about Christ. They met with limited success. The Nordic people were not eager to give up their old gods and goddesses.
But along with the story of Jesus, the missionaries brought stories of saints, including Lucy. Lucia means light and her day fell on what was the shortest day in Northern Europe. About this time there is a story of a terrible famine in Sweden. Just as it looked as though everyone would starve, a ship appeared and Santa Lucia, adorned in her wreath of candles and a white gown, appeared to feed the people the way she had fed the poor in Rome. And so, to this day, little Scandinavian girls wear candles and sing of light and joy.
Again it was not so much conquerors and missionaries who persuaded the common people to take up Christianity.
It was the vision of a young woman, dressed as a goddess from their old religions who came to show God’s care for the poor and hungry. The old gods and goddesses made for great epic stories. But they did not show the care for the poor the way Jesus and his followers did.
“In that darkness, there is a light”
Christian history is rife with shameful stories of crusades and conquests. But in the darkness of that history, there is the light of a St. Lucy who brings food to the hungry, a Nicolas who saves young girls from sex trafficking, and the Mother of God, dressed as an Aztec princess who is not ashamed to speak the language of the people. This is the story of Christmas.
This is the true story of incarnation.
The wise men learned that King they sought was not in a palace, not born to royalty but to a poor young couple turned away from the inns.
The Light that shines from Christmas is not a light that seeks power or to push others to the shadow, but the light lifts up the poor and outcast. It is the Light that sings Mary’s song –
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Where will the light show you the real incarnation of God in this world this week?