Next week we celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12), the patroness of the Americas. Our Lady of Guadalupe, just one of the many names conferred upon Mary, mother of Jesus, is of special importance to the faith of Mexican Catholics.
When Catholic missionaries first came to Mexico in the early 1500s, they did not have much success converting the local inhabitants at first. But then something miraculous happened: Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to a poor Aztec Indian named Juan Diego. As he was walking through the Tepayac hill country in central Mexico, Juan Diego encountered a beautiful woman surrounded by a ball of light as bright as the sun, and she spoke to him in his native tongue. She identified herself as Mary, the Mother of the true God, and told of her desire that a chapel be built where his people could come to know her and her love for them. After Mary directed him to run to Tenochtitlan to tell the bishop what he had heard and seen, Juan Diego did just that, only to be kept waiting for hours and eventually told to go home.
Returning to the hill where he had first encountered her, Juan Diego met Mary again and pled that she send someone more worthy than he to the bishop. But Mary clearly told him that she had chosen him for this task, so Juan Diego returned to the bishop again. This time he was able to meet with the bishop, who demanded a sign that prove the woman who appeared to Juan Diego was who she said she was.
A third time Juan Diego encountered Our Lady on the hill, and she told him to come back the next day to find the sign that would satisfy the bishop. However, Juan Diego was not able to return the next day, as his uncle had become very sick and needed care from his nephew. A few days later, with his uncle near death, Juan Diego went to fetch a priest, only to pass his meeting place with Mary one more time. She assured him that his uncle had been restored to health and directed him to go to the top of the hill to cut the flowers he would find there. Despite the cold, Juan Diego went to the top of the hill and was astounded to find Castilian roses in full bloom. He carried the roses in his tilma, which is like a poncho, back to Mary, who instructed him to show the roses to the bishop.
Meeting once again with the bishop and his council, Juan Diego opened his tilma to show them the flowers. But the real miracle ended up not being the flowers, but rather an image of the Blessed Virgin that appeared on the tilma. When he returned to his village, Juan Diego found that his uncle had indeed been made well, and his uncle told him that he had had a vision of a young woman surrounded by light, who told him to call her and her image “Santa Maria de Guadalupe.”
Within a few years of this apparition, six million Aztecs had converted to Catholicism. The tilma that bears the image of Mary can still be seen in the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and is the most visited religious shrine in the western hemisphere. The image of Mary from the tilma, that shows Mary as the God-bearer, as she is pregnant with Jesus, and that also depicts Mary as an Aztec princess and not a European Madonna, continues to be a popular symbol of Mexican Catholic faith.
What is the import of Our Lady of Guadalupe for our lives today? First, during this Advent season, this story reminds us of the crucial role God chose for Mary, a poor woman. Then Mary was chosen to bear God’s only son in her human body, and later, Mary has been the one God continues to choose to lead people to Jesus. Mary is a person with whom we may be able to identify, if God or Jesus seem a bit too intimidating to approach.
Second, it is instructive to think about how Mary appeared and spoke to Juan Diego. As noted above, she spoke to him in his own language, and the image she gave him in his tilma was not like the European images of Mary we see in European museums. Rather the image she gave him looked like him and his people. What does this tell us? First, I think it tells us that God chooses to appear to us, speak to us, and be present to us in the means that we can understand. God meets us where we are in our lives. Similarly, when we go forth to live as disciples of Christ, we, too, are called to appreciate and respect the culture and understanding of others we encounter. Just as God meets us where we are, we are called to understand others and to meet them where they are. It is only in this way that we can help people to know Jesus and God.
Have you seen an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe? Do you know anyone for whom Our Lady of Guadalupe is an important religious or cultural symbol?
What image of Mary do you have? Do you feel you can relate to Mary?
What can you learn from this story of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe this Advent?
Photo courtesy of elycefeliz via Creative Commons License