Our Lady of Guadalupe
Pastoral Center December 11, 2015
I want to introduce you to the greatest evangelist in the history of the Americas. No other person has brought more people to Jesus Christ than Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is why she is the symbol of the New Evangelization.
Almost 500 years ago the Spanish Conquistadors entered Mexico and the priests followed. They arrived at the shores of Mexico in 1519, and conquered the Capital of Mexico, known as Tenochtitlan, in 1521.
At first, the Spanish conquistadors and the early missionary priests misunderstood the faith of the people whom they encountered in Mexico. Ten years after the conquest, in 1531, there were only forty Catholic priests in all of Mexico. Very few knew the Nahuatl language. By the end of the 16th century fewer than ten priests spoke Nahuatl.
Those first priests found many pagan religious practices, including strange idols and great numbers of human sacrifices every year. The early missionary priests believed they were facing a polytheistic, pagan, devil-worshiping people. This term, “polytheists”, is very important to our story. Christians are “monotheists”; we have only one Almighty God, Creator of all. Our Holy Trinity is one God. It is more difficult to evangelize “polytheists” because of their superstitions. Polytheists have many gods, and not one almighty god. For superstitious people there are powers equal to god, conflicting with one another. Some very evil; they believe that witches and wizards and magic are as powerful as any god. You could not blame the first missionaries when they first believed that they were working with demon-possessed polytheists. But this misunderstanding created many obstacles for them.
The Aztec people were very religious, but after ten years of hard work, the missionaries had only a handful of converts to Christianity among the ten million estimated Mexican peoples they found. Even at this time there were still an estimated 10,000 human sacrifices every year in and around Mexico City.
By this time, in December 1531, the Mexican peoples were culturally devastated due to the Spanish military conquest, European-borne diseases, the loss of their royal leaders and government, their priests and their places of worship. They found themselves now a people subject to a foreign king who wanted to impose a foreign religion upon them. They had lost everything their fathers had taught them to be true. A deep, cultural melancholy took root among the Mexican peoples. By 1531, they found themselves treated like slaves, children, perhaps not even human, a devil-worshiping people who needed to be cleansed of their evil ways.
Into this sad history entered Blessed Virgin Mary when she appeared to San Juan Diego at Tepeyac in December 1531. Within four days, Dec. 9 to Dec. 12, the Virgin Mary would dramatically change the history of Mexico and the world in five aparitions.
We make a mistake when we think of that moment as simply another miraculous appearance, or her image only a sacred picture from the 16th century. It was much more than that. Mary’s appearance was, and still is ongoing evangelization. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a living “Gospel”, and a special “love letter” for the Mexican people, and for all the peoples of the Americas.
Mary evangelized with signs and symbols. Anybody can read the message Mary provided, but you have to see the original image, all of it, to read it with confidence. Over the generations since her appearance there have been thousands of reproductions created by human artists as copies inspired by the original image. Like souvenirs, these frequently distort or leave out critical parts of the message. Mary did not appear as a statue. All the elements of the original image are critical, like the sunburst. Nothing should be left out or modified, like the Angel. For generations the bishops of Mexico have been concerned that people must have faithful images of the original tilma of San Juan Diego.
You know you are reading the original message when you see the “imprimatur” of the Archbishop of Mexico in the lower right corner of the image. The artist reproductions often displayed were created in art studios fairly recently. The original image of Our Lady of Guadalupe came from heaven, through the Holy Spirit some 500 years ago.
In the original image Mary shows she understood these people, that they were not “polytheists”, but monotheists. The Aztec peoples believed that there was only one god and creator. However, different tribes had different symbols for the one God. The largest group believed God was best represented by the Sun. The next largest group included tribes that believed God was best symbolized by the Moon. Others believed that God was best symbolized by stars of heaven or even various flowers, which represented the sun, and the life and fertility that comes from God. Mystery can be only be represented by symbol.
Mary knew she had to evangelize these people in a loving manner. She knew she had to correct the way the Church fathers were attempting to evangelize them, while coming to the aid of the Church. Above all, she had to help bring the people to her Son. It was clear that the image along with the roses gathered by Juan Diego were special signs for the Bishop and the Church. We must remind ourselves what we believe as Catholics, that Mary did not die. She was conceived immaculate to live forever. She was assumed into heaven, body and soul to live forever as the “handmaid of the Lord,” in her own words.
These Aztec people were civilized and very advanced in many ways. Their math and learning was sophisticated. However, this people were culturally very different from the newly arrived Europeans. Their written language was not phonetic, and did not use letters or any phonetic alphabet. The Nahuatl language was more like the hieroglyphic symbols of the Egyptians or the Chinese, utilizing pictographs and symbols. The image of Our Lady is a “pictograph” message for the Mexican people. I would caution you not to be distracted from the original message by 20th century high-tech investigations into reflections in her eyes, or other similar, later conclusions. We must always begin by seeing what the 16th century Mexicans would have seen.
Mary affirmed their faith and belief in God. She tells them she understood that they were very religious people. She appeared to them not as a queen or a goddess, but a humble woman; a human mother, at prayer. In the image we see that she told them that she knew they believed in the one God. But, she told them, “He is not the sun. He is not the moon. He is not the stars or the flowers.” The original image is on San Juan Diego’s tilma, or “poncho”, and still hangs in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The archbishop’s imprimatur appearing in the lower right corner of copies assures us that this image is an exact replica of the original.
Mary proclaims the Gospel. She bore God in her body. She gives birth to the new “Sun”. She showed them she was pregnant. She wears the belt of pregnancy that they would have recognized. Her hands are held up in prayer over her womb and over her belt, like a protective roof for her child. She told Juan Diego in his Nahuatl language that she is the Mother of God.
Further, it is obvious from the image that our God is human, not the moon or the sun, but the son of a human mother. She wears a mantle of the stars of heaven. She wears a tunic of earth color, rose. Her tunic is covered with living plants well-known to the Mexicans. All the roots of the plants can be traced back to the heavens, affirming that all life comes from the heavens. However, there is one four-petaled flower over her womb that the people would have recognized as the flower of the new sun. She is giving birth to their new Sun. With the sunburst she is full of the Light of God.
She anticipates that the Spirit of the Mexican people will accept her, and we see the “angel” under her feet, embracing her gown and cloak, revealing her foot standing on the moon. The Aztecs would not have recognized the angel images depicted by European artists. This is not a heavenly cherubim or baby with dove wings. This angel is not above her. The color of the angel’s tunic is also a reddish earth color, like the Virgin’s tunic. The angel is from below, the spirit of the Mexican people, with eagle wings, not dove wings. The eagle is still preserved on the Mexican flag today, representing the people of Mexico. The color of the wings would have been familiar to the people as it was also the color of a native Mexican bird that Juan Diego says he heard singing before he saw Our Lady. The people would have recognized the wings and the color of the wings, blue, white and red, the symbolic colors of the Mexican people, and inspiration for the Mexican flag. Further, the people would have noticed that the angel is not in the form of a baby, but of a mature man, with a receding hairline and a mature face. This “angel” is the Spirit of the Mexican people rising up and accepting their Mother, the Mother of God.
The word Mexico derives from the Nahuatl meaning for the “Ombligo de la Luna”, the “belly-button” of the moon, the center of the universe. The angel makes certain we see that she is in Mexico and in the center of the universe.
In her words spoken in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, she told Juan Diego,
“Know, know for sure, my dearest, littlest and youngest son, that I am the perfect and ever Virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the God of truth through Whom everything lives, the Lord of all things near us, the Lord of heaven and earth.”
Mary was correct. These were a very religious people and monotheists. Generations of academic study have confirmed that the Aztecs were monotheists. Mary brought them to Jesus, and the people accepted the message.
The effect of her love letter to the Mexican people was a flood of Baptisms. Within five years some five million people had been baptized; and some nine million baptisms by the death of Juan Diego and Bishop Zumarraga in 1548. One Spanish priest wrote in 1536 that he and his partner performed over 14,000 baptisms in Mexico in just five days. The number of Baptisms in Mexico was so great that even Pope Paul III became concerned about priests shortening the baptism catechism and liturgy, and he issued a Papal Bull about his concerns.
The people had lost their primary temples, as the Spanish tore them down and built European churches over those sites. They needed places to worship God. Mary sent Juan Diego to the Bishop asking for a Church to be built on the site of her appearance. For the Spanish and the bishop, Mary appealed to their European sense of scripture from the Book of Revelation, where we read earlier,
A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman* clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars…, She was with child…. The Ark of the Covenant
There is much, much more to this mysterious miracle. Mary is showing us how to evangelize with a listening heart, not by confrontation or debate. With her Gospel, Mary led the people to her son, Jesus Christ, and they were baptized.
Even today some 14 million pilgrims from every country on earth go each year to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. There are more pilgrims annually at this Basilica than at all the other Marian shrines on planet earth taken together, including Lourdes and Fatima.