I grew up in a small, Protestant-majority community in Central Kentucky. In my congregation, like many non-Catholic churches, teaching about Mary was kept to a minimum. Typically, songs and sermons regarding our Blessed Mother were contained to the days surrounding and leading up to Christmas. Most mentions of Mary were done away with after December 25th, only to reappear in the next winter. Moreover, any mention of Marian apparitions would have been unheard of and deemed as a hoax or unbiblical phenomenon.
Yet, on occasion, I would find myself confronted with a colorful image of Mary, depicted as Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the grocery store, usually in the Hispanic food section, tucked beside tortillas, images of Our Lady would peer at me from the label of a prayer candle. At other times, I would see Mary in a picture frame, overlooking the customers in a local Mexican restaurant. Little did I know that the image and story of Our Lady of Guadalupe would follow me into the Catholic Church and not only increase my love for Jesus and His Sacred Heart but also encourage a renewed desire for evangelization.
A Brief History of Our Lady of Guadalupe
The storied history of Our Lady of Guadalupe stretches back nearly 500 years and finds us just outside of present-day Mexico City. Our attention is focused on Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a native Mexican who, along with his wife, was a converted from an indigenous religion to the Catholic faith. According to Carl Anderson and Eduardo Chavez’s book Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love, on the morning of December 9th, 1531, the widowed Juan Diego begins walking from his village to a doctrina, a place of catechesis. Upon approaching Tepyac Hill, Juan Diego hears a sound like singing. Curiously, he goes towards the singing and sees a beautiful meztiza (mixed race) woman, who we later learn is Mary under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
For the next three days, Mary appears to Juan Diego, imploring him to be her messenger to the bishop. Our unassuming saint is dumbfounded, believing that there are others more qualified than he to deliver Mary’s message to Church leadership. Instead, Mary tells him that
“I have no lack of servants…Make [the bishop] hear my wish..so that he will…build my sacred house that I ask of him” (Anderson and Chavez, 12).
In a state of disbelief of Juan Diego’s claims, the bishop demands a miracle on behalf of the Virgin. In order to prove her appearance, Mary tells Juan Diego to go to the top of the hill and gather roses that bloomed in the chilly winter. Taking the roses in his tilma (a type of cloak), Juan Diego ventures to the bishop once more, and drops the roses at his feet. However, it is not the roses that stun the bishop, it is Juan Diego’s tilma. On the tilma is an image of Mary, as she appeared on Tepyac Hill. The bishop, moved to tears by his unbelief, takes the tilma and makes plans to build a chapel as requested by Mary. Today, pilgrims may visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to see the miraculous tilma, which has survived terrorist attacks, acid spills, and natural decay.
The Message of the Tilma
To the casual reader, the story of Our Lady’s appearance to Juan Diego is nice. God utilizes a local convert, such as Juan Diego, to deliver His message of love and repentance to a nation in trouble. A miraculous image appears on an everyday cloak and a chapel is built. Yet, the mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe is much more than a tilma and a chapel: it’s about the saving power and love of Jesus Christ.
When viewing the tilma, it’s easy to discount the patterns and colors as the artistic liberty of the Holy Spirit. Yet, to assume this is to discredit Christ’s message, as delivered by Mary on Tepyac Hill. According to Anderson and Chavez, Aztec culture and religion at the time of the Guadalupan apparitions used drawings of objects to convey meaning. A drawing of a flower, in most situations, wasn’t simply for art’s sake, there was a special message behind it. This was very much the case regarding the miraculous image of Our Lady imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma.
At first glance, the dress that Mary wears in her image is adorned with flowers and buds. Anderson and Chavez note that in some reproductions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the flowers are rearranged or omitted entirely, as some artists do not understand the symbolic value. However, a simple review of the Aztec codex reveals that each flower, each bud is heavy with meaning. Perhaps one of the most vivid uses of this codex is found in the triangular blossoms on Mary’s dress. The authors write:
“We find another meaning in the flower…When we view it upside down, we see the triangular blossoms and curving stem come to resemble a heart and its arteries. This depiction of a heart is similar to those found in indigenous codices…as found in depictions of ritual sacrifice” (53).
Immediately, those who saw the image of Our Lady would have recognized the themes of sacrifice. In fact, live human sacrifice was common among native tribes. This image would not have shocked or scandalized the locals. However, using the codex of sacrifice, Mary delivers a message that disrupts the dominating cultural narrative of death:
“Unlike the Aztecs’ own ritual sacrifices, this sacrificial heart is shown to be a divine heart, a heart through which divine blood flows, indicating the sacrifice and thus love of God. With the heart’s artery attached to the Virgin’s celestial mantle, God is shown as the true Giver of life. Rather than being sustained by the Aztecs’ ritual sacrifice, he is shown as the one who sustains his creation through…his own life-giving blood” (53).
The new message that Christ sends to Juan Diego and his neighbors is not one of continuing death: but a new narrative of redemption, love, and peace. God is not satiated by the routine human sacrifice of the Aztecs, but He offers Himself in love and mercy through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Through Mary’s mantle, Juan Diego’s community is introduced to a compassionate God who is close to His creation, unlike the Aztec gods who were distant and cold.
Following the Star of the New Evangelization
For years, missionaries from Europe attempted to deliver the Gospel to the New World, but with little success. Due to political turmoil and racial discrimination against the native population in Mexico, it was difficult and sometimes dangerous to convert to Catholicism. With certainty, we can imagine that the missionaries wrestled with notions of defeat rather than reveling in the spirit of pastoral achievement. The missionaries were highly educated and well versed in theology, but the New World was often frightening and uncertain.
Yet, in the center of the turmoil, God chose to deliver His message to a newly converted Juan Diego, a man with little-to-no access to power and prestige. By faithfully adhering to Mary’s requests at Tepyac, Juan Diego, became God’s messenger, helping initiate a movement that resulted in millions of conversions to Christ. Because the Gospel of Christ was presented through the symbols of the cultural codex, a way that the local population could understand, God suddenly became accessible to all of Mexico’s humanity: not just the political elite and foreign clergy. Additionally, this new wave of conversions eventually led to the end of the practice of human sacrifice. It is no wonder that Our Lady of Guadalupe has been heralded as the Star of the New Evangelization and the patroness of pro-life causes.
Witnessing to the Sacred Heart Today
Still today, nearly half of a millennium later and over a cultural span, the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe is still as relevant today as it was on the morning of December 9th, 1531. Not unlike the political climate in which St. Juan Diego lived in, we find our society applauding the legalized killing of babies in the womb, dismissing spiritual bankruptcy, and reveling in a scandal. It is more difficult than not to find the love of Christ at work within the fabric of our world. Even more challenging is finding the courage to speak to others about the truth that is Christ.
Just as Our Lady appeared on Tepyac Hill with the message of her Son’s divine love, we are also called to witness for Christ in the world (Matthew 28:16-20). After appearing to St. Juan Diego, canonized in 2002, and leaving her image on his tilma, admirers were able to note that Mary not only was expectant with the Child Jesus in the image but that she carried the marks of his Sacred Heart on her mantle, as conveyed by the codex. In a missionary spirit, Mary carried not only Jesus to the native population of Mexico, but she bore the most treasured representation of His love: the Sacred Heart. Rather than appear for her own sake, Mary uses her work to point the New World, not towards herself, but toward the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Like Mary, we are also called to “clothe [ourselves] with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). Though we may not be in possession of Mary’s “celestial mantle” or a miraculous tilma like St. Juan Diego, as Catholics, we still have the ability to share the love of Jesus’ Sacred Heart. For each individual person, the New Evangelization will look different. Your mission may be to bear Christ to those in faraway lands. On the other hand, you may be tasked to bring the Sacred Heart to your friends and neighbors across the street. Our Catholic lifestyle and witness should be so evident and clear, that when others look at us, they are able to know that we are servants of Jesus Christ.
After all, we each live on our own “Tepyac Hill,” surrounded by a culture that doesn’t seem to grasp the love and intimacy of Christ. Many reject the idea that God is close at all, and like the Aztecs, believe that He is far away. Through the witness of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the faithfulness of St. Juan Diego, we have a clear picture of what it means to witness in a relevant way to our surroundings, while not giving in to societal pressure. May we, like our Blessed Mother, bring Christ to those who are starving for His message. Like St. Juan Diego, may we faithfully live out Christ’s Great Commission, despite our littleness. May we always be pursued by the message of Guadalupe.