There’s a certain sweet appropriateness to our announcement today of our publication of the last remaining Scriptural commentary in the Aquinas opera omnia, the Commentary on Jeremiah.
St. Thomas prefaces this commentary with a quote from 2 Maccabees that refers to Jeremiah: “This is the lover of his brethren, and of the people of Israel; this is he who prays much for the people and for the entire holy city, Jeremiah, the prophet of God.” (2 Maccabees 15:14)
I tend to think of Jeremiah as one of the more scathing and accusatory of the prophets (as illustrated by the eponymous “jeremiad”), but by placing Jeremiah in the scheme of salvation history, Aquinas illuminates a very different side of him. To be a “lover of his brethren,” who “prays much for the people” makes a prophet a mediator between God and man, “so by praying he might bear the cause of the people to God, and by preaching bear the cause of God to the people.”
Today’s feast highlights Our Lady’s role as mediator, “loving the brethren” and “praying for the people” in one of the most iridescent episodes in the history of the Church.
In 1531, the native population of Mexico had spent centuries under Aztec oppression, watching their loved ones being sacrificed to Aztec gods on a grand scale. But the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs had ushered in a new nightmare of suffering and slavery. Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, facing the impossibility of bringing the Gospel to a people so devastated, fought to protect the indigenous Mexicans from the conquistadores. He smuggled a plea for help to the Holy Roman Emperor using words that echo the prophet Jeremiah, “If God does not provide a remedy from his hand, the whole land may be lost in its totality.”
Into this heartrending and seemingly hopeless situation, God sent the most gentle and loving intermediary in his heavenly embassy. He sent his affectionate mother, who soothed Juan Diego’s fears with her loving assurances and arranged roses of Castile in his tilma with her own hands. She reignited the Bishop’s zeal by announcing herself under a title he would have remembered from his childhood. And she enraptured the indigenous people with the only self-portrait of her that we have.
“He has not done this for any other nation,” the bishop quoted in the words of Psalm 147. The psalm refers to the special gifts God showered on the nation of Israel. But as the bishop gazed on Juan Diego’s tilma, the privileges of the Israelites were eclipsed by the favors God had granted the people of the New World.
This also recalls something in the Jeremiah commentary. In Jeremiah 23:5-6 (a passage that initiates Advent in Year C), the prophet promises that God will raise up a “righteous branch” who will rule as king, with justice. But in the following verse, Jeremiah predicts days when the Israelites will no longer refer to the Lord’s liberating them from Egypt, because they will be praising how he saved them from exile.
St. Thomas comments on this paradox: Here, he shows the magnitude of the kindness from the fact that because of this kindness, God’s former kindness shall be forgotten; it is possible for one to refer this to the liberation wrought by Cyrus, but better would be to refer it to the liberation won by Christ. You shall not remember the former things, nor look upon the things of old (Isa 43:18).
This feast and this season place before our eyes the mercies upon mercies that God continues to rain down on his people, with each new kindness outshining the one before.