“Jesus was not white,” my New Testament professor said emphatically. On the screen beside him appeared a picture of a dark-skinned man with a beard. He reminded me of any one of a dozen adult male relatives I have. I had honestly never thought about the fact that Jesus, as a Jewish man from the Middle East, had brown skin and dark hair.
When I pictured Jesus in my head, he always looked like the statue on the cross in my childhood Catholic parish in Guatemala. He had white skin, European features, and wore a morose expression. In fact, all the saints in the parish were white.
A few years later, when I was a teenager, my mother was dying of cancer, and my abuelita gave us a picture of Jesus to hang over her bed. This was a post-resurrection Jesus, who was floating on clouds in an incandescent robe; the words beneath him promised that he would never leave us. I remember thinking that the words sounded ominous and threatening rather than comforting. And he was still a bearded white man with light brown hair.
These were the pictures of Jesus in my head any time his name came up in church or conversations. For that matter, my pictures of Joseph and Mary, his parents, were similarly white. So my professor’s words were novel and surprising though they should have been obvious to me.
In fact, I should have known better because of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
December 12th (today!) is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. All I knew about it growing up was that every year on this day my mom would dress me in indigenous Guatemalan clothing to honor La Virgen Morena, the brunette or brown-skinned Virgin Mary. It is a tradition in Guatemala, so many mothers did the same. My nominally Catholic family loved this day, and the Virgin of Guadalupe is significant in many parts of Latin America and around the world because, to put it simply, not only did she appear to an indigenous person in Mexico, but she also looks like us.
According to tradition, a man named Juan Diego, an indigenous convert to Christianity, had a vision in 1531. The Virgin Mary appeared to him and, speaking in his native indigenous tongue, she requested that a church in her name be built on the site where she appeared, Tepeyac Hill, a suburb of present day Mexico City. Juan Diego communicated the message to the bishop, but the bishop doubted him and demanded a sign. He would not start a massive construction project without confirmation.
On December 12th, the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego again. This time she gave him a sign. She asked him to collect roses in his tilmátli, an indigenous cloak. Juan Diego obeyed and took the roses to the bishop. When he opened his cloak, dozens of roses fell to the floor and an image was imprinted on its inside. The image was that of a dark-skinned woman, the virgin herself. She had an angel and moon at her feet and rays of sunlight surrounded her. Armed with this revelation, the bishop believed and began construction on the church: the Basilica of Guadalupe.
Now deep down in my heart of hearts, I know that who Mary and Jesus are and what they did transcends their skin color and unique facial features. But I cannot deny how deeply meaningful and transformative it was to learn that they were dark-skinned people. From that day in that lecture hall in 2009, I have reflected on the God who became flesh and took on brown flesh when he could have been any color he wanted.
We live in a time when those in power continually disparage the image of God in people of color.
- A white senate candidate in Alabama says the last time America was great when families were united…”even though we had slavery.” As if slavery was an insignificant blip in American history.
- Dreamers and their supporters are organizing for their right to stay in the only country they have called home since they were brought here as children.
- Another white officer is acquitted of murdering an unarmed black man, reiterating the fact that for those in power black lives don’t matter in America.
- The man who sits in the oval office calls immigrants rapists and drug dealers and institutes a ban to shut out Muslim immigrants, particularly refugees in need.
- And most painfully, many Christians stand behind a president who dehumanizes immigrants, Muslims, and other people of color.
How did a faith founded by a poor, brown-skinned man in a conquered and subjugated land come to align itself with the wealthy power-brokers of society?
How can people who serve a brown-skinned God in the flesh and esteem a brown-skinned Mary fail to align themselves with the poor and marginalized people of color in our country?
These are the questions that plague me. I don’t know what to do with them, other than shake my head in disillusionment and fall into despair for the state of the church.
But my consolation is in my brown-skinned God, who affirms the dignity and worth of all people. And even though I’m no longer a Catholic Christian, I venerate the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Observing the Feast of Guadalupe is important to me as it is to many Latinx people. Whether the story happened exactly as the tradition dictates doesn’t matter to me. Mary’s appearance as a brown-skinned saint to the indigenous Juan Diego in the Americas reinforces the truth that brown-skinned people are image-bearers of God, and it rewrites the narrative for us. We matter to God, even if not to our society. And God has endowed us with dignity, worth, and vocations with which we can affirm our God-given identity. We need that message in our country now more than ever.