On the evening of December 11th 2015, the large church of Shepherd of the Valley in Central Point Oregon was full to overflowing. Many of the women in the pews were dressed in white with red scarves, and small children were similarly clothed as St. Juan Diego. The Knights of Columbus in their plumed hats, scarlet capes, and silver swords, were incidental elements to a much larger spectacle of flowers, lights — and dancers.
As the prayer service began thirty-two dancers, mostly in their teens, wearing bandannas, golden crowns, in silken green pants, and tasseled capes bearing the image of Guadalupe, approached the altar. Each pair of dancers briefly removed their crowns in respect to the Blessed Sacrament, and then formed a double line across the front of the sanctuary. The “matachines” dance that was performed had been adapted for Mexican Indians by Jesuit missionaries. The dance traces back to medieval Spanish line dances. But it also incorporated elements from earlier indigenous traditions. The dancers carried three-foot long sticks or “sonajas” housing tin rattles, and were accompanied by three musicians, each beating a small hand drum and simultaneously playing a primitive two-holed flute. All of these elements were combined in a tribute to the Virgin Mary.
Devotion to our Lady under the title of Guadalupe antedates the coming of the Spanish to America. In the southwestern corner of Spain near the Guadalupe River the Virgin has been honored at a shrine since the 1300s and was considered instrumental in reclaiming this area from the Moors. In 1492, at the Monastery of Guadalupe Spanish monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand authorized the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World. The Virgin, in appearing to the Indian peasant Juan Diego, some 60 years later, referred to herself as the Virgin of Guadalupe, and devotion under this title became rooted in Mexican culture. Christ’s Virgin mother, presenting herself as a dark skinned native-American princess, struck a deep chord among the native population.
During the procession the congregation sang of how Our Lady came down to a mountainside “from the heavens on a beautiful morning,” and left behind her image on the tilma of a poor peasant. For the Mexican people, to be a “Guadalupan,” the song explained, was “algo especial” – “something essential”. A modern commentator describes the Guadalupe experience as a “mixture of the cultures which blended to form Mexico, both racially and religiously, bringing together people of distinct cultural heritages.” In a sense, it was the Virgin who melded the many native cultures of Mexico into a single people.
The hymn ended and the bamboo flutes shrilled as the dancers rhythmically swayed and turned, the sticks striking the floor in a rapid, staccato unison. At one moment the performers danced in place, at other times they crossed and spun. The large congregation looked on in silent intensity. Many of those who were older recalled that in their teen years they had participated in this dance before the Virgin. “The dance form” a woman explained to me later, “varies from region to region, but it is always a line dance, and the steps can be very complicated.” The music of the flutes, exuded an eerie, penetrating power.
When the dance concluded some 20 minutes later, the drums continued to beat and the flutes played as each pair of dancers approached the image of the Virgin, removed their crowns, knelt on one knee, and said a brief prayer, then egressed backwards up the central aisle, bent low, their sticks pounding, but never turning away from the Virgin.
The service was a long one. Following the dancers, and the recitation of a rosary interspersed with sermons, the entire congregation filed before the image of the Virgin, many shuffling forward on their knees for the last 20 feet to approach the shrine. One could not help but be struck by their prayfulness. The relationship to the person of Mary seemed intensely personal and heart felt.
In his 2013, Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospels, Pope Francis, notes how in the “beloved continent” of the America’s, many Christians express their faith through “popular spirituality” …a “spirituality incarnated in the culture of the lowly.” Such piety, Pope Francis noted, possesses “an active evangelizing power that we must not underestimate… [and] which demands our attention, specially at a time when we are looking to the new evangelization.”
Throughout the ceremony, the members of the Knights Color Corps stood at attention to the side of her portrait for the two-hour service. Eventually we were told that we might leave. But that the congregation would remain in the church for another hour, serenading the virgin with traditional Mexican hymns. As we filed from the Church, the congregation loudly applauded the knights for their participation, but it was we who felt honored to participate in a faith expression so distant from Marian devotion within the Anglo community. One knight exclaimed: “Why don’t we have such things in our Church?” But in a real sense, this was our Church, and we were the richer having had this experience.