As we feminists struggle to elevate Mary and Guadalupe, we sometimes forget that speaking of birth and gestation is not always empowering or even essential to womanhood.
It is early morning on the Hill of Tepeyak on December 9, 1531 when a wondering peasant named Juan Diego first caught a glimpse of her presence. Diego sees a vision of a teenage girl surrounded by light; the young girl asks that a church be built on the hill in her honor. After hearing her speak and seeing the light emanating from her presence, Diego recognizes her as the Virgin Mary. He rushes to the Spanish archbishop who insists on a sign as proof of Diego’s vision. The young girl instructs Diego to gather flowers from the top of the hill, even though it is past their growing season. Upon climbing to the top of the Hill of Tepeyak, Diego discovers Castilian roses—a beautiful flower otherwise unheard of in Mexico—which the glowing young woman arranges in his cloak. When Diego returns to the archbishop, he opens his cloak to reveal the miraculous flowers and they fall to floor; in their place was an image imprinted on the fabric of his cloak. It was the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Guadalupe is one of Mexico’s most popular religious and cultural images and her icon, now on display at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is one of the most visited Marian shrines in the entire world. On December 12, countless Christians—particularly Catholics—celebrate her feast day. Her feast day occurs within the four week celebration of Advent, which is the period of waiting, expectancy, and gestation before the birth of Jesus at Christmas.
Many feminists struggle with Mary and Our Lady of Guadalupe, insisting that they are often used to illustrate the submissive role of women in the church. Still others adhere to essentialist understandings of their stories, claiming liberation from some kind of inborn and innate feminine power. In these ways, some feminists highlight the story of Mary/Guadalupe as an example of the divine feminine nature of God, gestating in the womb and birthing the sacred into being. This is a powerful way of talking about divine incarnation, of God enfleshing Godself into earthly reality through the expanding womb of young Mary.
Along these lines, Marcia Mount Shoop expounds upon Jesus’ birth in her book about embodiment and the body of Christ called Let the Bones Dance. She writes:
Has anybody ever thought about Mary having contractions?
Yes, she had contractions.
But there is just that one line, something like…
“and then the time came that she would be delivered” or whatever.
She had Jesus in a barn, for Christ’s sake.
She had to let out at least a few shrieks along the way.
Has anybody ever acknowledged that Mary had a cervix,
much less that it dilated and was all stretched and bloody?
What was it like for her?
What was it like for her?
gripping whatever was closest to her determined hand…
What was it like to labor with God that way?
And these words have power, power of overcoming our Docetic desires that sterilize Jesus’ birth, that wipe away the manure in the manger, and instead birth a squeaky clean Christ into a Renaissance painting where Mary’s porcelain flesh shimmers under her blue embroidered Shakespearean gown as she holds a white baby Jesus whose golden hair matches the halo around his clean head. We don’t really want to think about the holy’s cervix. But it’s there, dilated and pushing, groaning the light of love into the world.
Meister Eckhart says, “For all eternity, God lies on a birthing bed, giving birth. The essence of God is Birthing.” But these claims are also problematic because, while it’s sometimes difficult to speak of Mary’s cervix, it’s easy to essentialize what it means to be woman and to equate women’s holiness with their capacity to give birth. As we feminists struggle to elevate Mary and Guadalupe, we sometimes forget that speaking of birth and gestation is not always empowering or even essential to womanhood. Advent’s waiting and longing is a stark reminder to many women and men who yearn for parenthood, who desire a belly-full of divinity, who wait patiently for birth to no avail. Further, it’s too easy to assume that this is the ability or desire of all women.
There are many women out there, myself included, who do not have the ability to birth children, who will never know the essence of God if the essence of God is birthing. This does not make their bodies any less worthy, any less holy. Moreover, there are many people out there who desire to be parents, but discriminatory legislation prevents them from adopting children. As my partner and I are in the midst of an adoption process, we are starkly aware that our state only allows one gay parent to adopt a child and, unless discriminatory laws change, the other one of us will never legally be our future child’s mother. The host of implications for this discrimination are theological, for sure, but also very scary.
These notions of essentialism, feminism, birth, and discrimination are a lived reality for so many as they celebrate the feast of Guadalupe or remember Mary’s pregnancy this Advent season. I recall the ways all my Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist intersect with these conversations: Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, and Salome. And I return to these two complex women: Guadalupe and Mary.
I painted Mary’s icon several years ago, allowing her pregnancy to embolden others to birth creative potential into our world as her heart and belly proclaim:
Her heart could hardly
Contain the love she felt
For this fragile bud of humanity
Burgeoning inside her
And she birthed
Creative potential into being…
Yet, I was surprised when the time came for me to paint an icon in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I’d intended to paint her for several years, but struggled with how to find empowerment in her traditional iconography. Then I was commissioned to paint her as a gift for an amazing young woman. A father asked me to paint Guadalupe for his daughter, a midwife who works with babies born on the border between Mexico and the United States. He shared pictures of his daughter, told me about her inspiring work, and informed me that her favorite painting of Guadalupe subverted traditional iconography by placing her in a slinky blue dress covered with shimmering stars in the foreground; in the background it is clear that she stands among prostitutes. Inspired by this midwife and her work, my painting also subverts Guadalupe’s traditional image. She wears the same blue dress, but continues to be surrounded by a halo of holiness as her heart proclaims:
Birthing beauty into the borderlands,
Her heart beat with compassion and dignity
For all her beloved children.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. Next year, she has two new books coming out: The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com