December 13, 2010

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

It was December 9, 1531, when Juan Diego first saw Her. By December 12th, the last of Her appearances, even the Bishop was convinced. They were meetings that would change the spiritual face, not only of Mexico, but the whole of the Americas. Some might argue that it bolstered Catholicism itself, right in the midst of its darkest hour. Five centuries later, practically the entire of Mexico were out on the streets yesterday, celebrating the fact that it had happened at all.

Juan DiegoJuan Diego wasn't his birth name. That was Cuauhtlatoatzin. He had been born into the Nahua tribe, in a village just to the north of modern-day Mexico City, on the eve of a period of tumultuous change. He married, but doesn't appear to have been blessed with children. He farmed his own land and, as a sideline, wove mats. Then, in 1521, the Spanish arrived.

The couple witnessed the rampage of Hernán Cortés through their country. They survived the conquest and, moreover, were counted amongst the few that welcomed their conquistadors. In particular, the pair were convinced by the evangelism of the Franciscan monks, who travelled with Cortés. In 1524, they were baptized into the Catholic faith. They were in the minority then, as very few Mexicans were interested in following suit. Cuauhtlatoatzin was fifty years old. It was now that he became Juan Diego. His wife took the baptism name Maria Lucia.

It was a Saturday, when Juan Diego set off on his usual weekend walk around Tepeyac Hill to the church. He was nearly 60 now and widowed. The air may have seem mild to the younger, more spritely villagers, but it poked coldly at his bones. He had a tilmàtli (a short cape, woven from cactus fibre) draped around his shoulders.

The hill itself had a Pagan past. It had been dedicated, by his own people, to the Goddess Tonantzin; She, who guided those in war or childbirth, and whose name meant 'seven flowers' after the crops that She oversaw. Perhaps Diego remembered those stories; maybe he didn't. But when the young girl called to him from its slopes, he knew immediately that She wasn't human. He was looking at someone divine. She was only about fourteen years old, but she called him 'my little son'.

Juan Diego trekked up the hill towards Her. He recalled the singing of birds and saw the light around her.Lady of Guadalupe, with Juan Diego She was dressed as an Atzec princess, with skin as dark as his own. She spoke to him in his native Nahuatl, but She called him Juan Diego.

She was no Pagan goddess. He knew that in the very soul of him; it was confirmed when Her message was for the Franciscan Bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga. She was the Mother of God Herself.

Juan Diego found the strength in his bones, the air in his lungs and the speed in his legs. He hurtled down the hill feeling like a young man, intent on seeking out the Bishop. He located him in the church, where the message was gushed out. The Virgin Mary was on Tepeyac Hill. She wanted a shrine there, built in Her honor. She had a promise in return and this had been memorized, word for word.

"I will demonstrate, I will exhibit, I will give all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who seek me, of those who have confidence in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities and misfortunes."

Fray Juan de ZumárragaZumárraga obviously thought that he had a madman on his hands. Well, you would, wouldn't you? Someone rushing in, telling you that they've seen the Mother of All, and that She wanted something building for Her. Especially when the Lady in question sounded very much like the Aztec Mother Goddess, for whom the hill was dedicated. It all sounded like a bit of a ruse.

But Diego was one of the Bishop's few converts. He couldn't just kick him out without some humouring words. Zumárraga told Diego to go back and get a sign that this was true.

Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac Hill and found the Lady still there. He explained that the Bishop needed a sign. She smiled back at him, still in Her aspect as a teenage girl. She told him to request again, of the Bishop, that Her shrine be built. Diego didn't feel worthy. He begged Her to send someone else. She was adamant that Diego conveyed her message.

The next day, Sunday 10th December, Diego tried again. The Bishop repeated his comment that he needed a sign, to prove that She was who She said She was. Diego set off to the hill. She was waiting for him. This time, She promised that there would be a sign. It would be something to convince even the most sceptical heart and it would begin the following day.

The next day, Juan Diego waited anxiously, but the news which came wasn't glorious at all. His uncle, Juan Diego Bernardino, lay suddenly ill and dying. He was very close to the old man. When Diego had been orphaned, as a child, Bernardino had taken him in and raised him as his own. Diego rushed to his uncle's side, but the prognosis looked bad. Diego tended to him all through the night.

By the early hours of the 12th, it was obvious that it wasn't healers, but a priest that was needed now. Someone had to come and administer the last rites. Diego volunteered to fetch Bishop Zumárraga. But halfway around the hill, in the murky light of 4am, Diego heard the Lady calling his name. Perhaps there was hope. She answered directly to a higher power. He raced to speak with Her.

Lady of Guadalupe, with Juan Diego

With her opening words, She assured him that his uncle would survive his fever. Then She asked Diego to gather up flowers growing on the hill. This was December, there were no flowers up there. Diego frowned, then looked around. There were flowers. There were hundreds of them. He hurried to pick an armful of them to present to Her. The Lady just smiled reassuringly and bade him remove his tilmàtli. As he draped the cloak over his arms, She arranged seven of the finest blooms inside it.

Diego took them to Bishop Zumárraga. He was no doubt roused from his bed to receive them, but the Lady had ordered that no-one but the Bishop himself was to open the folded tilmàtli. The Bishop stood before Diego, but didn't appear moved to take the package. Diego opened it for him, releasing a corner, so that the flowers cascaded to the floor of the church. Inside, in a perfect representation imprinted into the fabric, was an image of the Lady Herself.

Bishop Zumárraga fell to his knees.

On the other side of the hill, in a deathbed room, Bernardino was also on his knees. He had felt the mortal illness lift from him. His veins cooling from the fever. He had found a Lady, resplendent in light, standing in his room. "Tell them," She said, "I am the Ever Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe." Then She was gone.

Lady of Guadalupe, with Juan Diego

News of the incident spread like wildfire through the native peoples of Mexico. Within the next handful of years, 8 million of them had converted to the Spanish religion, Catholicism. This was at a time when, in Europe, many were defecting to Protestantism. The influx of new adherrents to the old faith is credited, by some, with saving it.

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated throughout Mexico and the Americas, on December 12th, each year.

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