By Joseph Toone
SMA: Faith Is Culture
You find yourself at the local Corpus Christi festival, or one of many others in Valle De Maíz and elsewhere in town, when suddenly a dancing dragon appears. Well, this dragon is not like Puff the Magic Dragon, but a kind of dragonish creature. Often with a lion’s head, tortoise shell body, and snake-like tail.
He embodies the legend of St. Martha helping to dispel earlier indigenous gods and goddesses in favor of the new Catholic faith.
In the Bible, St. Martha was a pal of Jesus’ and the aggressive middle sister to her siblings Lazarus and Mary. At one point Jesus comes over for dinner and Martha is vexed that her sister, or the men, aren’t helping her prepare the comida. Jesus shocks her out of her anxious fretting about meal preparation (she is now the patron saint of cooks, waiters, and waitresses) by stressing that she should simply be enjoying his company. In Martha we see ourselves—worried and distracted by all we have to do in the world, especially at dinnertime—and forgetting to spend time with Jesus.
According to legend, St. Martha moved to France following Jesus’ death. Her new village was having problems with a dragon named Tarasque. St. Martha found the beast and charmed it with hymns and prayers, and led back the tamed Tarasque to town. The villagers, terrified by the monster, attacked it. The monster offered no resistance and died there. Martha then preached to the people and converted many of them to Christianity.
The story of the Tarasque is very similar to the stories Beauty and the Beast and King Kong. The monster is charmed and weakened by a woman and then killed when brought back to civilization. The dragon was a metaphor of the hostile pagan world that frustrated the early Church. St. Martha, in this respect, represents the Church that boldly challenged the powers of fallen gods. Her legend came with the Spanish to San Miguel, and all of Mexico.
In addition to the occasional dancing dragon’s appearance in fiestas, you’ll find biblical quotes about St. Martha in the cemetery, as even in death we all can relate to the frustration of bringing dinner to the table!
As the number-one-rated local tour guide on culture by TripAdvisor, I provide tours Thursday and Friday at 9am from the Oratorio church. To learn more about faith and culture in San Miguel, visit CatholicSMA.com; it benefits children’s library and art programs.