Image: image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s tilma, Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in México City [Public Domain]
We Catholics in the USA have a delicate field in which to labor for the New Evangelization, but one which is more ripe for the harvest than we might assume: despite discovery by Catholics, first evangelization by Catholics, and diffusion of Catholics in every corner of these two continents, the Americas have the justified reputation of being WASPy and overall more Protestant than Catholic. The Puritans, after all, didn’t have many “patrons” in the Britannic Empire of their day, so they found a more hospitable home in relatively unoccupied North America.
Catholics were just as unwelcome as the Puritans in Britain and most of her territories, but the Americas did provide more space to roam under the proverbial radar. And there was a patroness here for them from the early 1500s. Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared as a mother, a queen, and, most important for those in North America, an Immaculate Virgin.
The motherhood and queenship wouldn’t be disputed by scholars, even skeptical scholars: she wore a black sash (or black girdle or belt) around her waist, which in 16th century Aztec culture signified that a lady was pregnant, as did the four-petal flower over her womb. Also, she wore a teal mantle with stars, and she stood in front of the sun with the moon at her feet, which indicated that she was highly exalted or royalty (as Chapter 12 of the Apocalypse also seems to suggest in its evocative language of The Woman).
Still, where does she show herself immaculate and a virgin? As the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia has it, “It is taken as representing the Immaculate Conception, being the lone figure of the woman with the sun, moon, and star accompaniments of the great apocalyptic sign.” The date of the apparition adds to the image itself, “To a neophyte, fifty five years old, named Juan Diego, who was hurrying down Tepeyac hill to hear Mass in Mexico City, on Saturday, 9 December, 1531, the Blessed Virgin appeared” (ibid.).
An image painted by Scripture
The biblical passages that pertain to a fuller explanation are Genesis 3, Isaiah 7, and Revelation chapters 11-12.
Chapter 3 of Genesis foretells a woman—or her seed (and this woman is pregnant!)—who will crush a serpent. Although we know the title as Our Lady of Guadalupe, Guadalupe is a Spanish word and St. Juan Diego, according to all reliable accounts, didn’t speak Spanish. His native language was Nahuatl, and the proposed word from that Aztec language to describe this woman was coatlaxopeuh, “who crushes the serpent.”
Now, skeptics will tell us that this is just more evidence of syncretism (i.e., the mix of true and false religion through the indiscriminate combining of religious practices from two or more religions). The Aztecs already worshipped the goddess Tonantzin and made pilgrimages in her honor to Tepeyac Hill. Yet, the skeptics conveniently omit that Tonantzin was not a virgin (nor pure, for that matter) and that she was also known as a serpent herself! Why then, attempt to mix the former worship of an impure serpent goddess with the pure Virgin who crushes the serpent?
Then there is the sign of the roses in winter, alluding to the prophecy of Isaiah 7. Our Lady appeared on the day of or the day after the feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated either on December 8th or December 9th, according to the Rite and region. A sign is sought and set to be given in Isaiah 7 as well as in Revelation 12. The Lady who filled Juan Diego’s tilma with Spanish roses in winter is our “Mystical Rose” who flowers when it is physically impossible, as foretold in Isaiah 7:14: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [God with us].”
Finally, there is the scene from the Apocalypse chapters 11 and 12. Remember, there are no actual chapter divisions in the Bible as written. They are simply a later addition to aid reading—but sometimes they can be a hindrance if we stop reading too soon. So, in chapter 11, the final description is of a kingdom. Then, all of the sudden, the temple of God was opened in heaven and the ark of the covenant appeared. Immediately in chapter 12 the ark that appeared is called, again, a great sign, a woman clothed with the sun and—as in the original image of Our Lady of Guadalupe—with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars!
Too incredible not to be true
Now, maybe this 55 year old peasant who spoke no Spanish was a masterful artist, an agricultural genius in the winter months, and a Biblical scholar. Maybe he pulled off the greatest con-job in history. Maybe the gullible Spanish missionaries just wanted an equivalent to their own dark-skinned virgin Guadalupana and “coatlaxopeuh” sounded good enough for them, when applied to a mestiza.
Then again, maybe Our Lord sent Our Lady with the express intention to convert about 10 million indigenous Americans who would then act as the “seed” of the church through their blood, sweat, and tears, as Tertullian had put it 1300 years prior.
My money is the on the image that survived a blast, the spilling of acid and over a century of exposure to the elements (read more about the incredible history of the image) and yet has not changed in its miraculous power in nearly five hundred years.
Admission: the author of this piece received a miraculous cure when praying in front of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
For a magnificent and unique addition to your Advent music, check out Chanticleer’s recording of a 1764 musical setting for Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe.