The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe recalls the Blessed Mother’s appearances to Juan Diego nearly five centuries ago in the year 1531. The indigenous peoples of the area had long suffered under the rule of the Aztecs whose evil gods demanded human sacrifices. Thanks to Divine Providence, the dominion of Aztec rule had been abolished, but the Spanish missionaries who labored to bring Christianity to the people had many obstacles. Not only was it difficult to communicate the faith in the spoken native language, but the zealous band of Franciscans struggled with their inability to successfully convey the message of Christianity to the people in the context of their own culture.
Speaking of the difficulties of evangelization, Saint John Paul II once said, “Christ himself asks us to proclaim the Good news using a language that brings the Gospel closer to the cultural realities of the people. If conversions to the Gospel of Jesus are to be effective, efforts need to be personal and tailored to the unique values, language, and forms of expression in that culture.”
While the valiant efforts of the good and holy missionaries had only minimal success in bringing Christianity to the people, the Blessed Mother, who can be referred to as the evangelizer par excellence, eventually effected the conversion of millions. Mary’s primary mission is always to bring Jesus, her Son, to us. On her first apparition to Juan Diego, she told him to go and tell the bishop of her request to have a Church built there on Tepeyac hill so that the sacrifice of the Mass could be offered. At first, Bishop Zumarraga did not believe this unlikely and simple emissary, and so he asked for a sign. Thus, through a series of miraculous events, Juan Diego delivered to him the heavenly image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The image depicts a lady with dark hair and hands folded over a dark purple ribbon tied around the waist. She wears a blue mantle that is covered with stars. In the image, the lady is enveloped by the rays of the sun and is seen to be standing on the moon with an eagle angel-like figure at the bottom.
The image that was imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma (or cloak) borrowed many elements from the indigenous culture which communicated certain truths to the people about the one true God. The overarching meaning of her image to the indigenous people was simply, in the Nahuatl tongue, xihuitl, meaning life. In contrast to the Aztecs who lived in fear of the death of their civilization and so offered human sacrifices to their gods, Mary’s image signified life. Symbols that conveyed this meaning were: life in the vegetation of her tunic, life in the five great streams of living water represented as stems of the heart-shaped flowers, stems which were adaptations of the Nahuatl sign for atl, translated water. The significance of water was that of Christian Baptism and the water that brings salvation.
Also represented in the image are nine large magnolia blossoms which were the symbol for the Nahuatl yolloxochitl, the Heart Flower, which had formerly been a metaphor to them of the hearts of those countless sacrificial victims. The tilma held powerful cultural meaning for the people as it represented protection, nourishment, matrimony, and consecration. The tilma also represented social status like that of a peasant, plain and undecorated. For the indigenous people there, placing the Virgin’s image on the tilma gave a new and elevated dignity to the common person.
The image portrayed a young lady whose skin color indicated she was Mestiza, a combination of both the Spanish and the indigenous people. In this way, she completely identifies herself with the people of the New World. She reaffirms their uniqueness and that she is their common mother. The dark purple ribbon tied above her waist worn higher up indicates that she is pregnant, which is the symbol of birth and renewal. The designs on the image that do not fold with Mary’s clothing are a divine codex. For example, the four-petaled jasmine represented an unknown deity, Lord of heaven and earth, symbolizing that Mary is pregnant with God – and yet she is one of them.
Much more can be said about the meaningful imagery in Our Lady of Guadalupe’s image, but one last item will be mentioned here. In the subsequent 500 or so years since these apparitions, all scientific studies have pointed to the unnatural, inexplicable, and miraculous qualities of the tilma.
There is much we can learn from pondering the meaning of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s apparitions, but let us narrow in on one thought. When Juan Diego was uncertain of his ability to carry out the mission she gave him, he told her that she should ask someone else. Nonetheless, she insisted that he was the one she had chosen to accomplish her plans. She reassured him saying, “Am I not here, I who have the honor to be your Mother? Are you not in my shadow and under my protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need something more?”
Mary says the same to us today when we are unsure of God’s plan for our lives. Mary is our Mother and we are her children. Mothers love to carry their little children in their arms. So too Mary, our spiritual mother. If you let her carry you, she will think of everything and she will take care of you. Give her every difficulty, every pain, every hope, and trust that she can take care of you better than you can take care of yourself.
This Advent, perhaps ponder how Mary, our Mother, knows what is best for us, which is to receive her Son, Jesus. She loves to create in us a greater receptivity for Him. She knows all that her Son Jesus wants to give us. Let us ask her to remove the obstacles that are taking up space so that Christ may more fully enter into our hearts, minds, and souls this Christmas.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us!