Every year about this time, as I prepare for my own celebration of Christmas, I think of December 12. That is the day on which many Catholics remember the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Although more common in Mexico, Catholics in the United States also celebrate the day. Here are a few links to news articles that document the phenomenon:

The Las Cruces Sun News

The Georgia Bulletin

The Trib Local Des Plaines

The Las Vegas Sun

It has been a couple of years since I posted this article so I though I’d post it again. I  wrote this when I was a missionary in Cuernavaca, Mexico. It was my attempt to learn more about the local culture and customs of the people among whom I was working.

Introduction.

          Mary – The Virgin Queen.

Without question one of the most significant religious events in Mexico’s history is celebrated every December 12. According to the legend that is the day on which the Holy Virgin Mary appeared to the Nahua Indian, Juan Diego[1], almost 500 years ago.

For anyone in Mexico on that date, the sounds of fireworks and mariachi bands playing Las Mañaitas are heard long before the sun comes up. These are the sounds of the faithful paying homage to their Virgin Queen: roaring “booms” filling the predawn air, traditional Mexican bands playing their music (for $150.00 United States Dollars per hour) to the stone statue that stands in front of the cathedral. This is how the “chosen” express their faith every December 12.

          The Historical Context

When the Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez landed in what is now the Mexican Port City of Vera Cruz, the year was 1519 and the country that was to become Mexico was inhabited by hundreds of Indian tribes. At the time of Cortez’ arrival, the dominant tribe was the Aztecs ruled by Montezuma. Within two years, the superior technology (and the theretofore unknown diseases) of the Europeans had the indigenous peoples of the continent either completely obliterated or subservient to the fair-skinned newcomers.

          The Religious Context.

By 1531, the Spanish had managed to convert a scant number of the dark-skinned natives from their superstitious religion to the European version of Christianity. However, the Spanish invaders understood that if Catholic Spain was ever to truly rule these pagan people, Catholicism would have to become the national religion. Nothing less than an en masse conversion was needed. For that to happen, something had to destroy the main stumbling block to conversion for these indigenous people: the fair‑skinned, blue‑eyed image of the Mother of God which the Europeans had brought with them. The Church knew that it needed a miracle to convert the Indians.

The Five Apparitions of the Holy Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception to Juan Diego and Juan Bernardino.

          The First Apparition – Saturday, December 9, 1531, predawn.

Early on, one of the more zealous families to convert to Catholicism was the family of an Indian named Juan Diego, a native of Cuautitlan. According to the legend, on Saturday, Dec. 9, 1531, Juan Diego was on his way to mass[2] at the Temple of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco at the northern edge of what is now Mexico City. As he walked along the hill of Tepeyac, he heard a chant[3] that seemed to come from another world. He stopped to enjoy it and perhaps see what could it mean. Above him, he saw something like a shining sun and in the middle a praying lady. She called to him affectionately and even used the diminutive of his name, calling him “Juanito.”[4]

This heavenly woman was no European. She was a dark‑skinned Indian like himself. She approached and told him, in his native dialect,

Know for certain, dearest of my sons, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God, through whom everything lives, the Lord of all things, who is Master of Heaven and Earth. I ardently desire a teocalli (temple) be built here for me where I will show and offer all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful Mother, the Mother of all 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 have confidence in me. Here I will hear their weeping and their sorrows, and will remedy and alleviate their sufferings, necessities and misfortunes. Therefore, in order to realise [sic] my intentions, go to the house of the Bishop of Mexico City [Fray Juan de Zumárraga] and tell him that I sent you and that it is my desire to have a teocalli built here. Tell him all that you have seen and heard. Be assured that I shall be very grateful and will reward you for doing diligently what I have asked of you. Now that you have heard my words, my son, go and do everything as best as you can.[5]

The humble Indian bowed in reverence, took his leave of the heavenly vision and set off with haste toward Mexico City.

          The Second Apparition – Saturday, December 9, 1531, afternoon.

After waiting for several hours, and being humiliated by the house officials of the Bishop, Juan Diego was finally able to see the Holy Man of God. Although intrigued by the strange little man’s tale, Zumárraga did not take him seriously and asked him to come back later. The Bishop told Juan Diego, “You must come again, my son, when I can hear you more at my leisure. Meanwhile, I will reflect on what you have told me and I will take careful consideration of the goodwill and the earnest desire that caused you to come to me.”[6]

Dejected and bitterly disappointed, Juan Diego left the presence of the Bishop and went back to the hill. There the woman appeared to him for the second time and asked him to go back on Sunday and see the Archbishop again. In Moses-like fashion, Juan Diego replied,

Noble Lady, I obeyed your orders. I entered into the Bishop’s audience chamber, although I had difficulty in doing so. I saw His Excellency as you asked of me. He received me kindly and listened with attention, but when he answered me, it seemed as if he did not believe me. . . . So I beg you, noble Lady, entrust this message to someone of importance, someone well-known and respected, so that your wish will be accomplished. For I am only a lowly peasant and you, my Lady, have sent me to a place where I have no standing. Forgive me if I have disappointed you for having failed in my mission.[7]

The Virgin smiled tenderly on him and said,

Listen to me, my dearest son, and understand that I have many servants and messengers whom I could charge with the delivery of my message. But it is altogether necessary that you should be the one to undertaken [sic] this mission and that it be through your meditation and assistance that my wish should be accomplished. I urge you to go to the Bishop again tomorrow. Tell him in my name and make him fully understand my disposition, that he should undertake the erection of the teocalli for which I ask. And repeat to him that it is I in person, the ever Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, who send you.[8]

 The faithful Indian obeyed and this time the Bishop, surprised at the tenacity of the humble little man, asked him to bring a proof of the woman’s existence. When asked by Juan Diego, “Señor, just what kind of sign do you ask for? I shall go at once and request it of the Lady of Heaven who sent me?” the Bishop replied that he would leave it to the supposed vision to supply the sign.

          The Third Apparition – Sunday, December 10, 1531, evening.

Upon leaving the audience chamber of the Bishop for the second time, Juan Diego set out for the hill in search of the sign of Heaven that the Bishop required. The Bishop, still skeptical, had Juan Diego followed by several of his trusted house officials. They were able to discreetly track his journey until he got to the hill where he mysteriously disappeared. They searched in vain and finally returned to the Bishop to report what had happened.

In the meantime, Juan Diego was having yet another conversation with the Heavenly Lady. The bright aura surrounding the Lady had enveloped Juan Diego as a mist, concealing his whereabouts from the Bishop’s officials. The Indian messenger told the Lady of the bishop’s request for a sign. The Holy Mother of God replied, “That is very well my son. Return here tomorrow and you will have the sign he requests. Then he will believe and no longer doubt or suspect you.”[9]

          An Interlude: The Terminal Illness of Juan Diego’s Uncle, Juan Bernardino.[10]

That evening (Sunday, December 10, 1531) Juan Diego returned to the home of his uncle, Juan Bernardino, with whom he was living. His heart was rejoicing that the Lady was going to give him the sign he needed to accomplish his mission. He intended to eat dinner and go directly to bed. He also fully intended to return to the hill the next day to receive the sign and take it into Mexico City to convince the Bishop of the Lady’s existence.

Juan Diego was horrified, however, upon reaching his uncle’s house. Juan Bernardino was lying in his bed seriously ill with cocolixtle, a dreaded fever that invariably claimed the lives of its victims. All that night and all the next day, instead of resting and returning to the hill as planned,  Juan Diego played nurse to his uncle. As the sun was setting on Monday, December 11, 1531, it was obvious that Juan Bernardino was about to die. He pleaded with his nephew to hurry the next morning to summon the priest to hear his final confession and to administer the last sacraments.

          The Fourth Apparition – Tuesday, December 12, 1531, morning.

At four o’clock in the morning,  Tuesday, December 12, 1531, Juan Diego set out for the city to bring a priest to administer the spiritual aids to his uncle. As he went past the hill, he was embarrassed and ashamed at his disobedience for not having returned the previous day as instructed.  He actually tried to avoid going past the hill. He did not follow his usual path, but, instead, struck off across the rough, grassy ground on the east side where he hoped to slip by unseen.

However, the woman appeared again and this time descended from the hill. She was, again, surrounded by a glorious light and was traveling on a course designed to intercept the Indian. He approached her in shame and told her that he was looking for a priest and about his uncle’s illness. He could see love and sympathy flowing from the Lady’s steadfast gaze as she told him,

Listen and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little son. Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your mother?[[11]] Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need? Do not let the illness of your uncle worry you because he is not going to die of his sickness. At this very moment, he is cured.[12]

           The Miraculous Flowers

The woman then told Juan Diego to climb up the summit of Tepeyac “to the spot where you saw me previously. There you will find many flowers growing. Gather them carefully, assembly [sic] them together, and then bring them back and show me what you have.”[13]

The faithful Indian climbed the hill and on reaching the crest was amazed to find a brilliant profusion of flowers, including Castilian roses, blooming in the frozen soil. Not only were they in bloom completely out of season, but it would have been quite impossible for any flowers to grow in terrain so stony that it could only yield thistles, cactus and mezquite bushes. He noticed that the flowers glittered with dewdrops and that their delicious fragrance rose like a breath of Paradise.[14]

Arranging the flowers in his “ayate” or “tilma” (a kind of poncho worn by poor people in that epoch), Juan Diego returned to the Lady who was waiting for him in a blaze of light. The woman, after affectionately rearranging the flowers with her own hand, told Juan Diego to take them to the archbishop, without showing his “ayate” or the flowers to anybody else. She told him, “My little son, these varied flowers are the sign which you are to take to the bishop. Tell him in my name that in them he will recognise [sic] my will and that he must fulfill it.”[15]

After struggling to get in the temple to see Zumárraga, Juan Diego told the friar that he had the proof of the visions he had had. He opened his tilma in the presence of the archbishop in order to show him the miraculous flowers. As the flowers “cascaded to the floor in a profusion of colour and perfume,”[16] the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mother of Christ, appeared imprinted on the tilma of Juan Diego. “For one electrifying moment, the eyes of every person in that hushed room were rivetted on the glowing image as if they were contemplating an apparition. Then slowly they sank to their knees in awe and veneration.”[17]

Conclusion.

          The Mass Conversion of the Indians.

Once word spread among the Indians that the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary that the Europeans preached, had appeared to one of their own, in a form that they recognized and with which they could identify, speaking their native dialect, the honored natives converted to Catholicism en mass. Since then, virtually all of the Americas have recognized this miracle and have made the Lady of Guadalupe the “Queen of Mexico” and “Empress of the Americas and of the Philippine Islands.” This was the largest en masse conversion to Catholicism in the history of the Catholic Church.

          Modern Day Mexico Still Revers the Virgin of Guadalupe.[18]

The poncho of Juan Diego, together with the image of the Virgin which appeared on it, can be seen today in the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Northern Mexico City. Every year the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which begins at midnight on December 11, attracts millions to the Basilica. In 1999 it was estimated that more than six million people visited the Basilica to pray to their queen, to ask her for favors and to thank the Virgin Morena (the dark‑skinned virgin) for granting their petitions. Many of these faithful Catholics actually begin the pilgrimage to the Basilica during the last days of November and walk for hundreds of miles to be present on December 12. Near the entrance to the Basilica many pilgrims can be seen crawling in the streets paying homage to their Queen. Some actually flagellate themselves as a sign of repentance and dedication to the Holy Virgin.

Although the Basilica in Mexico City is the place where most Mexican Catholics want to go to pay their respects to their Holy Virgin on December 12 every year, many of them cannot make the pilgrimage. For that reason, almost every local Catholic Church has festivities of its own to satisfy the needs of its Parishioners. Most have Mass every hour on the hour beginning at midnight and continuing throughout the day.

As one local journalist noted, “The day of the Virgin of Guadalupe offers more than an opportunity to confirm Catholics’  faith, it strengthens national identity and gives a wonderful excuse for a jubilant community to throw a spectacular but overwhelming party.”

          The Imagery of the Virgin.

Apparently much of the symbolism seen on the poncho of Juan Diego comes from Revelation 12:

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. . . .

The moon under the feet of the Virgin of Guadalupe can be clearly seen in the version of the image which accompanies this paper. She also seems to be “clothed with the sun.” In this particular version of the image there is a crown with twelve stars on her head. Some versions omit that detail but include the many stars on her shawl.

There are several variations as to the identity of the being beneath the Virgin’s feet. The most prominent are: (1) it is an angel (the number one answer); (2) it is the Devil (in fulfillment of the Catholic interpretation of Genesis 3:15); or (3) it is Juan Diego.

          A Modern Contradiction.

From the perspective of a modern-day Christian, the practice of such a strange mixture of Christianity, idolatry, and pagan superstition seems impossible, especially in a “modern” country such as Mexico. But, be assured, it is very real and it is taken very seriously by the vast majority of Mexicans.

Every year it vexes the soul to witness its practice. One wonders less and less how the prophets of old felt as they preached Jehovah to the people and watched with tears as the people worshiped the Baals.


[1] Juan Diego is the name taken at Christian baptism by the Indian, Cuauhtlatohuac.

[2] This Mass was particularly important to Juan Diego since it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin.

[3] Or, according to other accounts, he heard “strains of music in the still morning twilight.”  Johnston, Francis, The Wonder of Guadalupe (México City, México: Editorial Verdad y Vida, S.A. de C.V., 1981) p. 26.

[4] The woman was not speaking Spanish to Juan Diego, but, rather, Nahuatl, the native tongue of the Aztec Indians. According to Johnston, Juanito, although a valid translation of the diminutive, “cannot quite convey the exquisite courtesy, almost reverence, inherent in the Nahuatl suffix ‘tzin’. Thus did the Mother of God address herself to the lowliest of the poor!” Ibid., 49.

[5] Ibid., 26-27.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Ibid., 28-29.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 31.

[10]  The official version of the apparitions includes a fifth appearance to San Juan Bernardino. The exact date and time of the apparition to Juan Diego’s uncle is uncertain; this Fifth Apparition is said to have occurred sometime either on December 11 or 12 in the home of Juan Bernardino in the Village of Cuautitlan.

[11] This portion of her conversation with Juan Diego appears today above the main entrance to the Basilica to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City. It appears there in Spanish, ¿No estoy aqui, quien soy su madre?

[12] Johnston, Supra, at p. 33.

[13] Ibid., 34.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 36.

[17] Ibid.

[18] How the Virgin Mary who appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico came to be identified with an area located in a province of eastern Spain remains a mystery. There is no doubt that the name Guadalupe had absolutely no connection with Mexico whatsoever. The consensus seems to be that Juan Bernardino, the person who transmitted the woman’s title to the authorities, referred to her in his native tongue as “the Lady of the Immaculate Conception.” However, the word in Nahuatl for “Immaculate Conception” sounded, to the ears of the translator and to Bishop Zumárraga, like the Spanish word, Guadalupe. Hence, to the Spaniards present at least, there was no doubt that the Virgin Mary who appeared to the Spanish people at Guadalupe, Spain and who had been worshiped in their Homeland since 1326, had now appeared in Mexico. The official title, Our Lady of Guadalupe, was imposed upon all believers by the Holy Church in the 1560’s. Nevertheless, there is considerable controversy surrounding this issue. Some Indians refused to accept the name of a Spanish shrine as the title for their beloved Madonna, replacing it instead with variations of their own invention. For a complete account of this controversy, see Johnston, Ibid., 44-48.