Yesterday was the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which you might have missed. You can’t travel in Mexico, or even a Mexican barrio in the States, and not notice the Mexican people’s overwhelming attraction to the Virgin Mary. You will see murals, paintings, sculptures, and even tattoos with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “La Guadalupana.”
You might think this is a Catholic thing, but it goes way beyond that. Even secular Mexicans and the growing “Nones” still show an uncanny respect for La Guadalupana. She has transcended religion and become something special–and this in a country where almost anything can be a source of humor!
Most people are familiar with the story: the Virgin Mary appeared to a local Méxica man named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin during December, 1531. She told him to ask the Bishop build a church on Tepeyac hill. Juan Diego asked but was rebuffed by the skeptical cleric, who asked for a sign. Our Lady directed Juan Diego to gather roses which had (surprisingly) bloomed on the hill; he carried them to the Bishop in his cloak (tilma). When he spilled the roses at the Bishop’s feet, his tilma revealed a spectacular and unique image of Our Lady. The tilma remains intact and on display in the resulting Basilica in Tepeyac.
Regardless of how you feel about miracles in general or this one in particular, what may be the most amazing part is what happened next.
Recall from my earlier post that the Méxica empire had collapsed in 1521 under the twin pressures of Hernán Cortés and diseases brought by the Spanish soldiers. Ten years on, the Catholic missionaries who accompanied the conquistadors had made little headway. While the Méxica people were shocked by the collapse of their proud civilization, nothing that happened undermined their faith. While some locals near the coast thought Cortés and his men might be the return of the god Quetzalcoatl, the Méxica leaders pretty quickly figured out the Spaniards were not gods. The Méxica religion included stories of impending catastrophe which their leaders sometimes invoked to reinforce their position of power (“Look, I prevented the end of the world!”). One story Moctezuma used was a prophecy about the fall of Tenochtitlan caused by two-headed warriors. The metal-clad conquistadors on horseback certainly fit the bill as two-headed bearers of the apocalypse! The Méxica people were demoralized, but what happened fit the precepts of their faith, and they found the sacrificial Savior of the friars to be either confusing or ridiculous. Proselytization went slowly as result, until the tilma came to light.
While documentary evidence for the apparition only dates to 1648/49 (Spanish and Nahuatl accounts, respectively) and is therefore historically suspect, there is a 1568 account by an English prisoner which describes the tilma image as an object of veneration. The image on the tilma is an exotic mix of Catholic and Méxica traditions, which the Méxica people quickly embraced. Whatever happened on that hill (now) in Mexico City, the heretofore resistant Méxica people became overwhelmingly and persistently Catholic as a result. That alone qualifies as a miracle.