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Friday, 19 October 2012


The next Surah, 19, meanwhile, is named Maryam (Mary):

Relate in Al-Kitab[1] the story of Maryam, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the east.
She placed a screen to screen herself from them; then we sent to her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects.
She said: I seek refuge from you to Allah most gracious: come not near if you fear Allah.
He said: "No, I am only a messenger from your Lord, to announce to you the gift of a holy Son."
She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me and I am not unchaste?"
He said: "So it will be: Your Lord says, 'That is easy for Me: and we wish to appoint Him as a sign to men and a mercy from us.' It is a matter so decreed."
So she conceived Him, and she retired with Him to a remote place.” [Surah 19:16-22]

…the same Mary, reckoned by many to have been a primary source for St Luke’s Gospel:

“And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.[…] And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: Because no word shall be impossible with God. And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.” [Luke 1:26-30, 34-38]

   Thankfully there were no great trials attending my arrival and passage through customs etc at the airport in Mexico City. Spotting two sisters of the order of Poor Clares[2] who had arrived on the same flight, i gave them each little pictures of St Francis of Assisi that i’d picked up in Fukuoka. Since my Spanish was so flimsy, i addressed myself to an English-speaking woman at an information desk, who was rather non-plussed when i asked about the best way of walking to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

   Our Lord was under no obligation to undergo the strains and humiliations of His fully human Incarnation. He could have come straight down from Heaven as a grown man, in the way He is expected to appear in His Second Coming. But He desired to be conceived of the Virgin Mary, born at Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, as a preparation for His ministry and His saving death on the cross. In other words, He chose to do things the hard way; to go the long way round; to be a Martyr, so that there is no trace of imposture when He is called Emmanuel – ‘God with us’[3]. This is the nature of His invincible solidarity with His children, the supreme mark of His perfect love for every single one of us. So pilgrimage on some level is a very human, and therefore fallible and imperfect, but nonetheless sincere, striving for a semblance of this solidarity, with the poor and with God Himself, in being ready, like them and like Him, to do things the hard way. There is no real love without sacrifice.

Mexico City
   Not that, setting foot on the New World for the first time, i was faced with a very long walk from the airport to the Basilica; 10 kilometres or so, mostly along the edge of a central ring road. I was soon struck by the preponderance of ageing VW Beetles – somewhere in the region of one in three vehicles. The weather was warm rather than hot, the sun trying to pierce a thin covering of cloud. In a little park where i stopped for a rest a statue of Charlie Chaplin invited a photograph. In due course the carriageway took me to a turning for La Calzada de los Misterios, leading to the Basilica. In Aztec times this was a causeway, washed on either side by the shallow waters of Lake Texcoco, connecting the island capital of Tenochtitlan (now the core of Mexico City) to the hill of Tepeyac on the mainland. Bernal Diaz de Castillo, one of 600 Spaniards under the command of Hernan Cortés, who entered Tenochtitlan on 8th November 1519, described the scene thus:

   "And when we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land and that straight and level Causeway going towards Mexico, we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments they tell of in the legend of Amadis, on account of the great towers and temples and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers said that all these things seemed to be a dream...There is so much to ponder in this, and i do not know how to tell it, for never was there seen, nor heard, nor even dreamt, anything like that which we then observed."




Ever present: VW Beetle, Mexico City
[1] In Islam, Al-Kitab denotes the ‘People of the Book’, ie Christians and Jews.
[2] Followers of St Clare of Assisi, the contemporary and spiritual soul-mate of St Francis.
[3] “And she shall bring forth a Son: and thou shalt call His name JESUS. For He shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Behold a Virgin shall be with Child, and bring forth a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” [Mt 1:21-23]

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