One hallmark of true Marian devotion is that it always brings us, in the end, to Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary. While Catholic praise for Mary knows few limits, this is one of them. Mary always leads us to her divine son.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is no exception!
On today, her feast day, the 489th anniversary of her final appearance to Juan Diego, I thought I’d share five ways her image points to Jesus.
The black ribbon
The belt around the interior tunic was an Aztec way of indicating pregnancy—you can also tell by the slight curve and gathering of her tunic around her pregnant belly. Just as, when we see a pregnant woman in everyday life, we cannot help but also think of whom she is carrying within her, so also when we think of Mary, we can’t help but also think of Jesus.
Her turquoise mantle
The color of her mantle indicates that, despite her humble posture and countenance, she is not an ordinary woman. Turquoise was a color reserved for the Aztec emperor. Mary is a Queen who is pregnant with a coming King.
Mary’s hair is loose and unbraided, which in an Aztec understanding signified virginity. Married women braided their hair. This, combined with the black ribbon, means that the iconography reveals the woman to be both Virgin and Mother. Her pregnancy is of scandalous and miraculous origin!
The four-petaled flower
Printed on the tunic, directly over Mary’s womb, is a unique four-petaled flower. Though small and inconspicuous, this flower is an Aztec symbol for Téotl, a central concept in their philosophy. Téotl could be roughly translated as “God”, but a more careful reading might lead us to a parallel Greek concept: logos, or Word. Mary’s son is Téotl, the Word, made flesh. For him, by him, and through him all things were made.
Thesun and moon
The sun’s rays coming from behind Mary, and the moon beneath her feet, reveal her to be the woman from Revelation 12:1-6, whose son is the one who “will rule over all the nations”—that is, as the Messiah, Jesus.
The iconography of the image is such a perfect blending of Catholic and Aztec symbolism, it would be impossible to explain all of it here! But I thought it would be worth it to demonstrate how, even though devotion to Guadalupe is very deep and wide, she ultimately points beyond herself, to the blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus.
In our first Advent in California, I was looking for more.
Our Advent wreath was assembled on the dining room table. Our Christmas tree was up and decorated, a bit dry already. But I wanted practices, traditions, holidays beyond just the ones I knew. So I went hunting online.
Maybe that Catholic church downtown will have something interesting, I thought. I checked their website calendar, and there it was, next Tuesday, December 12th: Día de Guadalupe. I clicked the link.
Celebraciones del Día de Guadalupe
4:30 AM: Rosario
5:00 AM: Las Mañanitas
6:30 AM: La Misa
7:30 AM: Fiesta
I didn’t even hesitate. I’m going to this.
And so it was that I got myself up three hours before dawn on a Tuesday morning, brushed my teeth, and left the house as quietly as possible. I pulled out of the driveway before turning on the car’s headlights, hoping not to wake my neighbor, because I didn’t want to have to explain to anyone why I had been up so early. This was just between me and Our Lady.
At the top of Santa Cruz’s central hill, where only months later everything came flooding to the surface, I found Holy Cross Catholic Church. It was still well before dawn, but the parking lot was almost full. Floodlights illumined the white brick exterior, and I ascended the front steps and walked through the central door. The rosary was just finishing, and a mass of voices were speaking in unison, their voices smooth and deep, like the water of the baptismal font.
“A ti clamamos los desterrados hijos de Eva. A ti suspiramos gimiendo y llorando en este valle de lágrimas. Vuelve a nosotros esos tus ojos misericordiosos. Y después de este destierro, muéstranos a Jesús, fruto bendito de tu vientre. Oh clemente, oh piadosa, oh dulce Virgen María.”
I learned later how to say it in English:
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us. And after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus. O clement, o loving, o sweet Virgin Mary.
I found an open pew near the back. The rosary was prayed mostly by las abuelas, who had somehow arrived at 4:30 to pray together, fully dressed and made up for the day. Raising my eyes to the front, I saw a copy of the image on Juan Diego’s tilma, to the right of the altar. She was crowned and adorned with hundreds of flowers, which cascaded from her feet all the way down to the toes of the abuelas in the frontmost pew.
As I took her in, I noticed that all around me, families were beginning to arrive. The parents were dressed for work, and the teenagers were in sweatpants and hoodies, and some of the little boys were in traditional costume as Juan Dieguito. The father in each family, almost without exception, carried a sleeping child in his arms. Everyone was coming for las mañanitas.
It was 5 AM.
The service was all flor y canto, flower and song, a work of popular devotion. A small band—two guitarists and a bassist—played toward her image. All of the Guadalupe songs were already in the hymnal, so I followed along. A sample, from my favorite, “A Tí, Virgencita“.
Qué viva la Reina de los Mexicanos / Long live the Queen of the Mexicans
La que con sus manos sembró rosas bellas / She who with her hands plants beautiful roses
Y puso en el cielo millones de estrellas / And puts into heaven thousands of stars!
The last line is my favorite; in it, the woman’s voice arcs up into the heaven like a rocket. I know it’s not theologically true—Mary putting stars into heaven—but dammit, it’s poetically true, at least, it is to me.
The songs went on like this for over an hour. A gentleman stood and gave a testimony about Our Lady’s intercession in his life as a young boy in the hospital. As he reached the conclusion of his story, a miraculous healing, tears fell from his eyes. His face trembled with emotion. I was moved, too.
After all this the priest said Mass in gringo Spanish, slurring the r’s. At the homily he grinned sleepily. “Buenos días, y yo quiero decirles, ustedes son locos!” (“Good morning, and I want to tell you, you guys are crazy!”) It wasn’t even 7 o’clock. We had all been here for two hours, and the abuelas for even longer.
Finally the Mass was over, we sang a final song, and were dismissed. There would be hot chocolate in the parish hall, but I slipped out into the parking lot. The sky above me still carried thousands of stars, but there on top of the hill I could see a rose-colored dawn blossoming over Monterey Bay. I thought of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, going out from his casita in the dark on the same morning, December 12th, and discovering the Mother of God waiting for him atop a hill not unlike my own.
I breathed the fresh morning air, and felt her presence again.
I am still trying to discover why I resonated so powerfully with Our Lady of Guadalupe. I had never given Mary a moment’s thought. I had no opinion on whether or not she was “just an ordinary woman”, as my Protestant background would have it, or if she was in heaven with Jesus as the Queen of Heaven. I only know that when I left for Mexico that first time, I had no emotional investment in her, and when I got back, I did. I went to Tepeyac; I saw the tilma; I am a Guadalupano.
When we arrived in Skagit Valley that same month to begin our missionary work with that charismatic commune I’ve written about, I kept thinking about her. We were staying for a couple weeks in the upstairs bedroom of the building where we also worked—just until we could move into our place in town. There was a little Mexican grocery across the street from the building, and on one of the shelves they had those little votive Guadalupe candles you see everywhere. I picked one up. I liked feeling her with me; her soft, maternal presence comforted me. I bought it at the front counter, exchanging pleasantries in Spanish with the cashier.
Somewhere halfway across the street I had the thought:
She is not welcome here. They will think she is demonic.
I dismissed it as a silly thought, yet I left her in the brown paper bag, packing her away until we moved in to our permanent spot. This was a very open-minded community, I thought. They’ve been working with Mexicans and Central Americans for decades. How could they not celebrate Guadalupe? But her image did not grace any of the building’s walls. She was nowhere to be found, actually. I checked.
Six months later, I had put the candle with her image up, right at eye level by the front door. It had never been lit. I was listening to a recording about exorcisms as part of our onboarding classes (this was considered a normal afternoon activity in those days). It was a charismatic pastor, a French Protestant, talking about how his church’s building in Paris had been dedicated to Mary when it was originally built. He said that the real Mary was dead, and the Catholic Mary was actually a demon named the White Lady. Then he told a story with great zeal about how he exorcized Mary from their church, as if she were a banshee.
How sad, I thought.And then I realized that my intuition had been right. She wasn’t welcome here.
Another six months passed. It was the fight of our lives, and I truly felt that our souls, our very beings, were in mortal peril. We were being devoured, something dark had attached itself to us, was pursuing us, and perhaps had even entered our home. We felt oppressed. We opened all the windows and commanded the darkness to leave.
Father Virgil Elizondo wrote a really terrific book a few decades ago called Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation. I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts of his here, which are much better-developed than my own. Here he is writing about how Guadalupe instantiates a peculiarly American (in the broad sense) way of knowing that honors the way the Aztecs understood the world even as it revealed something new to them:
In the epistemology of Guadalupe, truth cannot be obtained or arrived at through observation, rational analysis, and argumentation alone, but can only be fully grasped through the beauty of sight and sound followed by critical questioning and analysis. Dreams and visions are as much a part of the process of discovering and knowing as critical observation and analysis of reality. This was the the process Juan Diego went through to arrive at the truth of Our Lady of Guadalupe. No one aspect defined or proved the authenticity of Our Lady at Tepeyac or of the new Juan Diego. Truth emerged in the totality of events.
The way to discover Guadalupe is not to hear a critical breakdown of her various attributes or a parsing of Nahuatl and Spanish manuscripts. Experience leads the way. Truth emerges from events. This is a way of knowing deeply grounded in the sensate experience. The way to discover the meaning of Guadalupe is to analyze and reflect only after experiencing flor y canto, flower and song:
For the Nahuatls, divine truth existed in flor y canto; no one expression of truth could communicate the whole truth, especially about God. According to this view, ultimate truth can be grasped and expressed only through the poetic and artistic, through the beautiful and the rhythmic, through individuality and diversity. And there is no better medium for this than flor y canto. [ . . . ]
Guadalupe is an image-word that is experienced through the beauty of flor y canto and then explained through the spoken (later written) words of Juan Diego. This combination allows us to understand not only with our minds but even more so with our hearts.
To understand God’s love not only with our minds, but also with our hearts! By speaking in and through the culture and language of the conquered Aztecs, this is what Our Lady of Guadalupe restored in the Christian community. A heart-knowledge of the love of God—without which all dogma, all doctrine, all truth is only so much noise.
Once I believed the story of Guadalupe, I began to see her everywhere.
Here’s a picture of a shrine to her that I saw at a restaurant outside Mazunte, Oaxaca. These are from my Instagram:
Far away from Mexico, I saw her again at Cafe Diablo on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, right across the street from our church:
If you keep an eye out, you’ll notice her presence, too. She watches over her children from votive candles in the ethnic foods aisle at Safeway, from high murals painted in rough neighborhoods, from little statues set into prayer nooks at Mexican hostels, and other surprising places. You’re likely to find yourself under her mantle almost anywhere.
There are three different ways that Western civilization has understood its rapid and near-total conquest of the Americas.
One, as divine favor. God ordained that the Spaniards (or English, or Americans, or French, or Portuguese) should have victory over the native peoples so that Christ may be glorified and the peoples of the Americas would submit to the true God.
Two, as the victory of a superior culture or race. Faced with weaponry and methods of warfare that they had no experience with and could not match (or, in darker versions of this telling, the superior intelligence and skill of the white race), the indigenous peoples of the Americas were overpowered by a civilization that was superior to their own.
Three, as the byproduct of deadly disease. Most of the “work” of making the Americas into easy pickings for the Western conquerors was done by smallpox and other Eurasian diseases to which the natives had no resistance. Contagious disease led to the death of millions of natives long before most of them ever saw a European, and precipitated the collapse of an entire hemisphere of civilizations, from Alaska to Argentina.
All three of these factors come into play in the story of Guadalupe.
Regarding the question of divine favor, it’s worth asking: to whom did the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, not appear in the story? Not to Cortés the warrior to congratulate him on his victory over the Aztecs. Not Zumárraga the bishop to encourage him in his ministry. Such favor was not granted to the Spaniards, zealous though they were for the gospel as they understood it. No, the Queen of Heaven appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a Chichimec peasant living outside the city. He was the one to whom Heaven showed favor. This fact made it difficult to claim that the Spaniards won the war with the Aztecs because they were God’s chosen people.
And La Virgencita also told Juan Diego to build a temple for her from which her love would go out to his people. The conquistadors were not Heaven’s chosen! Rather, Juan Diego was chosen as the messenger and builder of a temple through which God’s love would be brought to the native peoples of the land, Our Lady’s chosen people.
Regarding the question of cultural or racial superiority, consider that Our Lady spoke to Juan Diego not in Spanish, the language of the invaders, but in Nahuatl, his native tongue. And this was no mere concession. The timing of her apparitions at dawn and at winter solstice, the appearance of flowers and song, the location of the vision at Tepeyac at the former worship place of Tonantzin, her costume and appearance: all of these show that Our Lady did not just speak the language of Juan Diego, but also already inhabited his native culture’s symbolic and mythic world. Yes, she was Tonantzin, revealed as Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
And was this apparition of a pale-skinned Madonna, such as the one Cortés carried into battle? No, she was and is La Morenita, the dark-skinned girl who belonged to the people of Mexico. She was not a European Catholic playing dress-up. She really was from and for Juan Diego’s people.
And finally, what of the plagues that swept across the Americas after European contact? Here, too, we find a balm has come from Our Lady. Remember, at her final apparition, when she bequeaths Juan Diego her sign of the roses, he was trying to avoid her in order to care for his dying uncle, Juan Bernardino, who was dying as another wave of European disease swept over the native peoples. And Our Lady tells him, in her most famous saying from the story:
“Do not be troubled or afraid. Am I not here, I who am your mother? Are you not under my protection? Am I not your shield? Don’t let your uncle’s illness distress you anymore, for he will not die yet. Rest assured, he is well even now.”
So here is Our Lady’s response to the plagues: a promise of protection, of eternal motherhood, and here, of healing.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons I have such affection for Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is Heaven’s response to the ongoing catastrophe of the conquest of, as we call it, the New World. In response to the conquistador’s claims of divine favor, Mary bestows her favor especially on the the conquered ones. In response to claims of racial or cultural superiority, Mary appears as already and newly present in indigenous culture and as a member of their people. And in response to the plagues which swept over the native peoples, she promises protection, comfort, and healing to all who come to her.
Bekah and I chose a place to learn Spanish that was embarrassingly beautiful—embarrassing, I say, because we had raised the money to go and do an immersion program in order to do mission work with Spanish-speakers. When your salary is paid by ongoing donations from family and friends, there’s a little guilt mixed in with every indulgence and enjoyment.
But Mazunte was no Puerta Vallarta or Cancún. There was a beautiful beach, but no expensive resorts. There was good food, but nowhere that served burgers and fries. No souvenir vendors hawked their wares in perfect English. No. Mazunte was less a tourist destination than an uneasy compromise between the locals and the rootless hippies who swarmed the little fishing town each summer to smoke pot, do mushrooms, and screw. Somewhere in between the local community and the hippie population were the various expats who came to live in Mazunte, mostly European, all of whom enjoyed the counterculture vibe without necessarily buying into the hippie thing wholesale.
One of those expats was my teacher Mia, a blonde Spaniard who had been living in Mazunte for several years. She spoke with a typical Castilian lisp, and left her legs and armpits unshaven, and kept her hair matted and a little dirty. All of which was and is fine with me, I only tell you to paint a picture, but what bothered me about Mia was that she could be something of a fresa—Mexican slang meaning, literally, “berry”, and figuratively, a snob. Mia was convinced of Spain’s cultural superiority even as she took advantage of the affordability and ease of living in México. In this way she reminded me of certain American tourists I’d encountered over the years (but to be honest, the Europeans were usually much worse).
Historically-minded readers will understand why I found this unpleasant. Mia’s home country of Spain had become wealthy precisely because Mia’s ancestors had colonized Mexico and robbed it of its natural resources. And Mia had (painting in broad strokes here) inherited the wealth of Mexico and was using it to live the easy life in Mazunte, all the while looking down on local culture. This attitude, shared by many of the European hippies who came through town, was exactly why so many locals disliked the hippies even as they depended on them to sustain the towns’ economy.
Mia and I had our lessons on the high balcony of the school’s building, where fresh ocean breezes brought relief from the humidity. I could watch the birds flitting among the palms while I tried to conjugate irregular verbs.
The day’s lesson was on the story of Guadalupe. It came with a little printout on a plain piece of paper. Just two paragraphs about the Spanish conquista and the efforts of early Catholic missionaries to convert the natives. The Guadalupe image, said the paper, was the prime example of syncretism, how the Catholicism of the conquered Aztecs and other indigenous people was, in fact, a blend of pre-conquest religion and the imposed Catholicism of the Spaniards.
“Guadalupe is syncretism,” declared Eva, with that slight Castilian lisp. “At the same hill where the apparition supposedly happened there was a temple to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin who was considered the mother of all the gods. The conquistadors tore down the temple to Tonantzin at Tepeyac and introduced Guadalupe as a substitute, and the Aztecs continued worshipping Tonantzin under the new name and image. The missionaries were very clever to do this.”
I balked. The idea that this story and image, which I knew lay at the heart of Mexican identity, was nothing more than a piece of Spanish propaganda—a dupe—or, at best, a rather uninspired compromise between Catholic and indigenous spirituality . . . it seemed too drab to be true. Guadalupe had an intense power that was too great to find its origins in anything so boring as that. And besides, I thought, indigenous people were smart enough to know the difference between their gods and the imposed beliefs of the conquistadors.
If Mary was in heaven with Jesus, and she saw what Cortés and his army had done to the Aztecs, and the devastation of an entire culture by so-called Christians—well, why wouldn’t she do something drastic about it?
“You don’t believe the story?” I asked.
Mia frowned. “I think it is a good story.”
I pressed my forefinger into the heart of Guadalupe’s black-and-white image on the handout between us. “But this is the Virgin Mary, no?”
“No. It’s Tonantzin.“
I let it go, but I was troubled in spirit. The story had touched me personally; it had that sweet gospel fragrance. The lifting up of the lowly Juan Diego, the humbling of the lofty Bishop Zumárraga, Mother Mary as the great missionary to the indigenous peoples of the Americas: like the Resurrection itself, it was too good not to be true.
Later that day I was talking with Ana, the founder of the school, down by the kitchen. Ana moved to Mazunte from Mexico City to start the school. She was kind and accommodating with almond eyes and a peaceful, wide smile. Ana knew that Bekah and I were in Mazunte studying to become missionaries and that I had a degree in theology.
I may have been complaining a little about Mia’s dismissal of Our Lady as myth and superstition.
“I’ll tell you something,” I confessed. “I believe the story.”
Ana pressed her palm to her chest, genuinely surprised. “¡Órale!” she gasped. “Very few of our international students believe the story . . . Why, for someone not from here to say . . .” I don’t think she even finished her sentence.
I was surprised at the intensity of her emotion; I didn’t know that faith in Guadalupe was such a rare quality in her students. Ana was not a religious person, but she believed in Guadalupe. And in confessing my belief in her too, I felt myself entering another world.
“We’re visiting Mexico City after we leave here in two weeks,” I said, pressing further. “Do you think you could tell me how to get to Tepeyac?”
Miriam Solis has an entire album of Guadalupe songs that I found on Apple Music. I had heard most of these songs for the first time at the early morning Día de Guadalupe service at Holy Cross in Santa Cruz, CA. (A post for another time.)
This song is fairly representative (though it’s not my personal favorite). Another great way of telling her story: with mariachi music!
Lyrics & translations below:
Desde el cielo una hermosa mañana (x2) La Guadalupana (2) La Guadalupana bajó al Tepeyac.
From heaven one beautiful morning, Guadalupe came down to Tepeyac.
Suplicante juntaba las manos (2x) Era mexicana (2x) Era mexicana su porte y su faz.
Her hands were together in prayer, and her face and her countenance were Mexican.
Por el monte pasaba Juan Diego (2) Y acercose luego (2) Y acercose luego al oír cantar.
Juan Diego passed by the hill, and then came closer to hear the singing.
Juan Dieguito la Virgen le dijo (2) Este cerro elijo (2) Este cerro elijo para hacer mi altar.
“Little Juan Diego,” the Virgin said to him, “I choose this hill for my altar.”
Desde entonces para el mexicano (2x) Ser Guadalupano (2x) Ser Guadalupano es algo esencial.
Since then, for the Mexican, to be a Guadalupano is something essential.
En sus penas se postra de hinojos (2) Y eleva sus ojos (2) Y eleva sus ojos hacia el Tepeyac
In your pains, get down on your knees and raise your eyes to Tepeyac.
En la tilma entre rosas pintadas (2x) Su imagen amada (2x) Su imagen amada se digno dejar.
In the tilma among pink roses, she decided to leave her beloved image.
If you’re looking for a simple way to commemorate her feast (and you have an ear for mariachi music), you can find Miriam Solis’ Guadalupe album on Apple Music!
The best telling of the Guadalupe story I’ve found in English is, to my delight, by John Steinbeck. I’ve searched all over the internet to try to confirm that what follows is really his. The style is certainly recognizably Steinbeck, and the writing is good enough, but I don’t know where to find it in print.
The site I’m pulling from is riddled with ads and poorly edited, so I’ve copied it here. If there’s a copywright violation in me posting the whole thing, I’ll be sad to take it down, but here it is until I’m told otherwise. I think it really captures the beauty and simplicity—I mean to say the gospel-ness—of her story.
Steinbeck’s account begins below:
Juan Diego and his wife Maria Lucia were humble people who lived in the little town of Cuautitlan, north of Mexico City. They had no children so that their dependence on each other was great. One dawn, Maria Lucia was feverish. At midmorning her eyes were swollen and her breath labored. At noon she died.
They had lived in love, and Juan Diego was lost in his sorrow. He had no relatives but the uncle named Juan Bernardino, who had cared for him in his youth. Now Juan Diego took to wandering over the hills, spending his strength the way a grieving man does. In the night, he was wakeful and restless.
It is told that one December day, he arose before dawn and walked through the frost of the harsh stormy land until he came to the hill of Tepayac. Just as the day was breaking, he climbed the hill and there came to him, first softly, and then louder, the sound of many birds’ songs.
The songs grew to an earthly music so that he stopped and wondered, for the music seemed to come from everywhere. He looked up the hill, and the dawn light was brighter than any he had ever seen; the music swelled and echoed.
Juan Diego went quickly toward the light that shone from the hilltop; a voice from the music said, “Juan Diego, come here.” In a moment, his grief was gone and the fullness of beauty was in him. The path up the hill was lined with mesquite and cactus and sharp with stones. He came half running to the brow. The music swelled and retired.
And then, he saw the Queen of Heaven standing in the rocky path with the light around her, so that the stones gathered it and glittered like jewels. And the dark mesquite was very bright. For a moment, Juan Diego gazed at her, and then he backed away in shyness and in fear.
The vision said, “Juan Diego, my son, where do you walk?”
And he answered, “My Lady, I was walking in sorrow to find peace for my heart, but now I am not sad.”
The Lady said, “Do you know who I am?” And he answered, “I think—I know.”
She spoke quietly in the lights, “I am Mary, the Mother of Jesus. And I wish that here on this bleak hill, a temple may be built in witness of my love for your people. I have seen the suffering of your people and I have come to them through you.”
Juan Diego tried to speak, but she silenced him. “You must go to the bishop in Mexico and tell him that here by the hill of Tepayac, my temple must be built from which my love may go out to all of your people.”
Our Lady’s voice was imperious. “Juan Diego, I have chosen you for a reason to be understood only gradually, but it will be stronger, because everyone will find the reason for himself. I have many messengers, but I have chosen you, Juan Diego, my son, go as my messenger, and order the bishop to do as I have said. Say to him that Holy Mary ever Virgin, Mother of God, has sent you. That you and no other are the messenger.”
Juan Diego bowed. “I will go, My Lady,” he said, and as he spoke, the light faded into ordinary day and the stones were stones and the mesquite black. The Lady was gone.
Juan Diego went slowly down the path, and the world was pale after his vision. He took the north way through the marshes where the tall reeds grew and his road was the stone causeway, for the Valley of Mexico was a broad lake, and the city stood in the midst of it.
Juan Diego was filled with terror now. He had never traveled to the city in all of his life. After his mud village, the growing buildings and the new churches were things of wonder to him. He asked his directions many times before he came to the palace of the bishop, a lordly building, magnificent, new.
The Bishop of Mexico was a scholarly man. From the first, he had defended the Indians against the brutal soldiers and the nobles of Spain and it was his custom to hear anyone who came to him. When Diego was led to his chamber, the bishop expected a complaint or a petition. Many tragedies passed before him everyday.
The bishop had many duties on a Sunday, and Juan Diego squatted in a corner, waiting. Again and again, he demanded entrance, but the servants refused him. Now Juan Diego’s message burned in him and he shouted his demands. Tears were in his eyes and the fury of frustration in his heart. The bishop heard him shouting and quietly gave word to let him in.
Juan Diego fell to the floor before the throne. “Our Lady says you must build a temple!” he cried. “She says it is her wish. Do you hear? She orders the temple to be built in the valley by Tepayac.” The bishop said sternly, “You are ill. You are unbalanced.”
Juan Diego shouted. “Our Lady orders you!”
The bishop sat quietly thinking, and then he said with calculations, “I will tell you . . . words are empty, and men sometimes see things that are untrue. Ask for a sign beyond doubt. Now go.”
“What sign?” Juan Diego demanded.
The bishop smiled and signaled and his servants held Juan Diego’s elbows and led him away. When he was gone, the bishop called two men and said, “Follow Juan Diego. See where he goes. And see that he does not hurt himself nor any others.”
The men followed Juan Diego and at last, they came to a ravine before the valley below Tepayac, and a rare mist covered Juan Diego from their sight. They could not find him anywhere. At last, they returned to the city and told their story. The bishop sat alone and he was troubled, and Juan Diego remained persistently in his thoughts.
The cloud moved along with Juan Diego and it grew luminous, and in the midst of it, the Lady appeared. In his weariness, Juan Diego bowed and he said, “The bishop wants a sign. He will not believe words. But he would not say what sign.”
The Lady’s voice was sweet to the weary man. “Go to your rest,” she said. “and in the morning, come again and I will give you a sign.” Then Juan Diego went toward his house. But on the way, a neighbor came to him saying, “Your uncle is dying of the fever called cocolxtle. The same that destroyed your wife.”
Juan Diego went toward his uncle’s house and found the old man with red, swollen eyes and a shallow breath. His uncle whispered to him, “Go to Father de Grado. He knows curing herbs. And if they fail, he will give me the rites of the Church.”
Juan Diego went to find help for his uncle. His promise to the Holy Mother worried him, but it seemed good to him to have a humble duty to do, for her mission frightened him.
He thought: I will not take the short cut over the hill of Tepeyac. I will go the longer way around the hill and then the Holy Mother will not see me, and I can put aside the duty. He said to himself, “She could not blame me for trying to help my uncle.”
He took the longer path and he felt the mesquite bushes pulling at his cloak. His feet stumbled on the rocks in the dark way. And suddenly, the light broke around him and the Lady stood before him. In grief and shame, Juan Diego knelt before her. “I was coming to the hill as soon as I could get help for my uncle,” he said.
She replied with compassion, “You cannot go around, my son. You cannot ever go around. Particularly you. Forget your uncle. He is well now. I have made him well. Go now to the right path over the hill of Tepayac and gather what you find there.” Then Juan Diego went back to the hill path and in the desolate place, he saw roses of Castille, fresh and lovely, growing in a place where roses could not grow and blooming in a frosty month when roses do not bloom. In the dawn, he gathered the flowers and then the Virgin was beside him, and she took the blooms from him and laid them in his cloak. “This is my sign,” she said. “Go now to the bishop.”
Juan Diego came to the palace and he entered carrying the roses wrapped in his cloak. The servants in the hall jeered at him, and they struck him and pulled at him to put him out of the hall. But Juan Diego guarded his cloak. “It is the sign!” he cried. “I have brought the sign from the Holy Mother!” As they pushed him, a corner of his cloak came free and they saw the roses and they were silent. One man put his hand to the flowers and he could not touch them. And then he went quietly to the door of the bishop’s chamber and opened it, and Juan Diego entered.
The bishop looked at the Indian with annoyance, but Juan Diego was not afraid. “Here is the sign.” he said and released the corners of his cloak, and the roses – uncrushed and unwilted – fell to the hard floor.
And then the bishop saw the cloak of Juan Diego, and got to his knees. On the rough cactus-fiber cloak of the Indian, Juan Diego, was the image of the Mother of God.
At Tepeyac, they raised a simple hermitage on the place where she had appeared, to serve until the temple could be fashioned. And Juan Diego built a new mud house nearby and planted a garden. He swept out the chapel and cared for it until he died. He was very happy. And it is possible he did not know that through his heart, Our Lady of Guadalupe had become the Holy Mother of his people.
Today I’m beginning a novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe, my very favorite Marian apparition. Our visit to her shrine in Mexico City in 2015 was a major turning-point in my journey to Catholicism (though I didn’t know it at the time).
A novena is, basically, a nine-day commitment to prayer, usually for a particular intention or to celebrate a certain holy day. In this case I’m preparing to celebrate her coming feast day, which is next Saturday.
I have tried to write about Guadalupe multiple times but seem unable to do so—to me her meaning is still pre-verbal, lodged somewhere in my right brain and yet to work its way into the left-brain world of words.
So, in an attempt both to elucidate for myself why she’s so significant to me and to share some of that with you, dear readers, I’ll be writing about her each day up through her feast day on December 12th, the anniversary of her appearance to Juan Diego almost 500 years ago.