A Light in Advent: Our Lady of Guadalupe

Originally published at Ignitum Today.

A MIRACLE ON TEPEYAC

In December 1531, two men in a small village in Mexico each felt the presence of an overwhelming darkness. One, Bishop Juan de Zumárraga, was a Spanish missionary who had reached the point of despair in trying to evangelize the native people. He sought to preach the truth of Christ in the face of a native religion that promoted human sacrifice, but his fellow Spaniards had treated the natives so poorly, committing terrible abuses against them, that few Aztecs were willing to listen to the message of Christianity. Zumárraga feared an uprising would be imminent, that barring some kind of miracle, a bloody conflict would result and the people of this land would be lost. He prayed to Our Lady to intervene and braced himself for turmoil.

Meanwhile, an Aztec man in Bishop Zumárraga’s parish, named Juan Diego, faced his own personal difficulty. He and his wife had converted to Christianity together, facing the scorn of their peers; now, Juan Diego’s wife had passed away, and he lived with his uncle Juan Bernardino, also a Christian convert. Juan Diego embraced the Christian religion and faithfully attended Mass despite the tense relations between Spaniards and natives; he lived out his days in quiet sacrifice amid the brewing storm around him.

One day as Juan Diego was walking to Mass, he saw a brilliant light atop Tepeyac hill. He heard angelic music and a voice asking him to ascend. When he reached the top of the hill, he saw a beautiful woman, glowing with light, dressed in traditional Aztec garments. The details of her appearance carried great meaning in Aztec culture: she wore the color of Aztec royalty, her hair was arranged in the style reserved for virgins, and the ribbon around her waist indicated that she was with child. The sight of her filled Juan Diego with joy, and she spoke to him in his native tongue:

She told him she was the perfect and eternal Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God, and made known to him her desire that a shrine be built there where she could demonstrate her love, her compassion and her protection. “For I am your merciful Mother,” she said, “to you and to all mankind who love me and trust in me and invoke my help. Therefore, go to the dwelling of the bishop in Mexico City and say that the Virgin Mary sent you to make known to him her great desire.”

Juan Diego went to speak with the bishop, but Bishop Zumárraga was hesitant to trust Juan Diego and asked for proof. So Juan Diego, undeterred, returned to Tepeyac hill and met Our Lady once again, asking for a sign that he could show the bishop. She told him to come back the following day, that she would grant his petition the next morning. He was confident that she would deliver an answer to his prayers and told her he would return.

But Juan Diego returned home that night to find that his uncle, Juan Bernardino, was deathly ill. Instead of going out the next day to meet the Virgin, Juan Diego stayed home to tend to his dying uncle. When he finally left the house two days later, on December 12, it was not to meet the Virgin but to find a priest to perform the Anointing of the Sick. He took a different path to the church so as to avoid meeting Our Lady along the way:

As he approached Tepeyac hill, Juan Diego remembered his promised appointment with the Virgin. However, aware of his uncle’s condition, he did not want to delay his journey, and so he avoided his usual path in the hope of evading the Virgin. Yet as he rounded the hill he saw the Virgin descend from the top of the hill to greet him. Concerned, she inquired: “My youngest son, what’s going on? Where are you going? Where are you headed?”

Juan Diego, at once surprised, confused, fearful, and embarrassed, told the Virgin of his uncle’s illness and of his new errand, and expressed something of the hopelessness he was then experiencing, saying, “Because in reality for this [death] we were born, we who came to await the task of our death.”

…The Virgin listened to Juan Diego’s plea, and when he had finished she spoke to him:

“Listen, put it into your heart, my youngest son, that what frightened you, what afflicted you, is nothing; do not let it disturb your face, your heart; do not fear this sickness nor any other sickness, nor any sharp and hurtful thing. 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?”

Carl Anderson, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love

The Virgin revealed to Juan Diego a garden filled with Castilian roses, growing amid an arid, dusty environment, and in the winter, no less. She instructed him to gather the flowers in his tilma (a traditional Aztec cloak) and show them to the bishop as the promised sign. He obeyed, and when he met Bishop Zumárraga and let the roses spill out of his tilma, the bishop fell to his knees in awe—not at the flowers, but at the image that had been revealed behind them. On Juan Diego’s tilma was an image of the Virgin as she had appeared to him, dressed in Aztec garments and filled with radiant beauty.

THE CONVERSION OF A NATION

When Juan Diego returned home to greet his uncle and relay the story of Our Lady’s miraculous visit, he was surprised to find his uncle restored to full health and with a story of his own to tell—Mary had visited him, too, and healed him. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was placed on display, and all the native Aztecs in the community came to revere it. To them, it was not only a beautiful image; it contained intricately detailed symbolism that had great significance within their culture. They could read the elements of the image to understand what it was really telling them—that this was the Mother of God and their Mother, who loved them and wanted their protection; that she was coming as one of them, redeeming their culture and calling them toward a new dawn. The image blended elements of the New World and the Old, bridging between two peoples that had experienced bitter division. Our Lady appeared with the medium-toned skin of a mestiza, a mixture of Aztec and Spanish blood.

Within seven years, eight million natives were converted to Christianity, and the practice of human sacrifice came to an end. Eight million—and in a land that had previously been so resistant to Christianity, after experiencing great suffering at the hands of Spanish conquerors. Only Our Lady could mend such bitter wounds, and she came personally to comfort her people, to give them a new hope. She showed that she understood the beauty of their culture, and she showed that her Son was the fulfillment of their deepest longings—that because of the Cross, His sacrifice was the only human sacrifice necessary, one perfect sacrifice that was enough to cover all our sins.

Mary bends to meet us right where we are. She pulls our good intentions out from the mess we’ve created—our longings for goodness, truth, and beauty, for justice and righteousness—and leads us to their true fulfillment in her Son. She heals the distortions of our hearts and claims us as her children. She comes as one of us, telling us not to be afraid.

MOTHER OF THE NEW WORLD

Bishop Zumárraga had prayed for a miracle to come, but when it did, it was from a place he didn’t expect, and he didn’t recognize it at first. His prayer for the conversion of the people was answered in a powerful way, but it did not follow the pattern of how other nations had converted to Christianity. In Europe, what had always happened before was that the king would convert and his people would follow. But here in the New World, something even more radical took place: the conversion began at the ground level, with an ordinary man, a humble layperson. Because this conversion happened from the ground up, the faith of the Mexican people became a firm and unshakable foundation—even through persecutions to come, when the government would oppose Catholicism due to the strong influence it had on the people.

This crucifix was bent when a bomb exploded in front of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has endured through nearly five centuries and incredible circumstances. On November 14, 1921, a bomb was placed within flowers at the base of the image; when it detonated, the altar fell apart, the bronze crucifix atop it was bent and twisted, and windows of neighboring homes were shattered. But the image, at the center of the wreckage, remained perfectly intact. In the eighteenth century, during a cleaning of the frame, nitric acid was accidentally spilled onto the image. This should have destroyed it instantly—nitric acid is highly corrosive—but the only effect was a black spot that can now be seen in the upper right corner of the image. Just the conditions of the arid Mexican climate alone should have been enough to cause the tilma to fray and disintegrate over time. Scientific experiments were performed to see how replicas of the image would hold up in the same conditions, and they all disintegrated within ten years, while the original image is still vibrant as ever. The strength of Our Lady’s image is formidable, and both her image and her message have not faded through the centuries. Through every trial, she has not abandoned her children.

A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

Juan Diego was likely filled with confusion and sadness as he set out on the morning of December 12. Days earlier, he had met the beautiful Virgin and felt such happiness, but now everything was turned upside down. He was losing the only family member he had left; he felt alone and abandoned. How could he talk to Mary again, in this moment? He couldn’t possibly summon the joyful obedience he’d shown her days before. So he took a different path, intending to avoid her—he wasn’t ready to see her yet.

Juan Diego expected that when he met Mary again, he would be prepared, ready to focus fully on her message without distraction or confusion. Dealing with his uncle’s sickness, he didn’t think he could face Our Lady on a day when he was so overwhelmed with a growing melancholy and other pressing duties. But he didn’t realize that Mary was coming to meet him in his weakest moment, in his greatest despair—to heal him and bring him the comfort that only a mother can give, to carry her Son to him and instill true hope.

We think that we’re not ready to meet God, that we ought to wait until we really have our act together to reach out to Him, so that we can properly greet Him—but it is precisely in those moments that we need Him most. He is the only one who can draw us out of the pit of suffering and sin. Juan Diego went out of his way to avoid Mary, thinking he could not face the Mother of God when he barely understood what the point of living was, when we are all destined to die. He couldn’t bring himself to meet her, so she came to meet him where he was.

We want God to come on our own terms, but instead He comes on His terms: in the womb of a woman, in the midst of a world that is broken and suffering. He is the light amid the darkness, leading us toward a new day in the Kingdom of God if we stay with Him through the dawn. He met Juan Diego on Tepeyac, hidden in the womb of His Mother. Even though Juan Diego couldn’t see Him in the midst of his suffering, He was there. He is carried within each of us when we receive the Eucharist, and He grows quietly in our hearts as we await the birth of His presence into the world.

Life is Advent. Jesus does not arrive in the world by force; He knocks on the doors of our hearts and asks to be let in, asks for us to nurture a light that will eventually overcome the darkness. We spend our lives in wait for that moment, the coming of the day. Its real fulfillment will come after the dark night of death, as we are not made for this world. But we can see a glow if we tend to the flame within us. We see it shining from the hearts of others, too. Zumárraga prayed for a light in the darkness, but when it came, he didn’t see it at first because he was looking in the wrong direction. His prayers were answered, but not in a way he expected; God took him by surprise. Juan Diego, unable to see God in the world, felt a deep hopelessness—but God was present, hidden, and He reached out to meet him, to help him see the promise of the new dawn on its way.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, be our comfort in the midst of the dark night. Help us to welcome your Son into our lives, in whatever surprising way He comes to us. When we stray from the path, come out to meet us where we are; when we can’t see through the darkness, turn our faces to see the light dawning.

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